Most of the characters who populate the stories in We’re Flying were once happy. They were ordinary, but hopeful, representatives of Stamm’s native Switzerland: cheerful parents, loving spouses, young professionals. But, more often than not, we are introduced to them just when they enter the throes of loss. Through Stamm’s terse, minimalist prose, we learn that the child has just died, or the spouse has been unfaithful, or the promising career is plunging toward failure. Often the injury is a romantic one, delineating isolation—a failure to connect.
In the opening story, “Expectations,” the middle-aged Daphne is courted, then rejected, by the young man who lives upstairs from her. Stamm has excellent instincts for the tight scope of short stories, and in “Expectations” we are taken deep into Daphne’s claustrophobic love. “I wonder what he wants with me. I go downstairs and put on a clean blouse. While I’m downstairs, I hear him go to the toilet, and flush twice….We’re in closer touch when we’re apart, when we only hear each other.”
Daphne is not particularly likeable. Her thoughts are shrilly neurotic: “There are more men all the time who can’t get it up, or can’t be bothered with sex. The quality of sperm is falling off a cliff. It has to do with female hormones that leach into the groundwater.” Yet, when she realizes that her neighbor is never going to sleep with her, we feel her grief all the more keenly—not in spite of her irritating qualities, but because of them. Stamm portrays loss with a series of awkward gestures—pointless maneuvers, futile grasps, insistent denial. Through these grotesque motions, Stamm circumvents the shorthand language of tragedy, forcing us to view pain with fresh eyes.
Even as Stamm frames his stories with the trappings of realism—familiar settings, average people—imaginary losses are plentiful. They move through the pages like ghosts: narratives are filtered through skewed perceptions, and the realistic texture of the stories becomes warped. In “The Last Romantic,” the imagined loss is one of talent. A piano teacher, Sara, prepares to audition for a solo with an orchestra, only to realize that she has been profoundly deluding herself about her level of ability: “For the first time she noticed that her playing was entirely lacking in brilliance and expression. She needed all her strength and concentration to master the technical difficulties, and even then she wasn’t successful. She made mistakes, many mistakes.”
Symbolism is used to great effect in “The Last Romantic:” as with many of Stamm’s stories, the narrative draws a direct line between a character and an object. In less skilled hands this would seem simplistic or strained; but in Stamm’s precise and plain language, the analogies blossom. “Sara watered the philodendron that was growing along the ceiling and sprayed its leaves with leafshine….The shapeless plant with its air roots dangling in space struck Sara as an emblem of her own life, in her slow growth she put out one leaf after another, without the prospect of ever leaving this room.”
This bleakness can seem unrelenting, but the humanity is in the details. Stamm documents his characters’ trials with a meticulous gaze that, ultimately, uplifts rather than dissects its subjects. When, in “The Suitcase,” the elderly Hermann visits his comatose wife Rosmarie in the hospital, we see her. We see her slippers hanging “on her feet like two hooks;” we see her “cold body…lying on a metal bed in the hospital…reduced to it vital functions.” “Only her hands with the painted nails look familiar.” These images reveal both Rosmarie’s frailty and Hermann’s vulnerability. If Stamm had spared us the details of these scenes, their power would have vanished. To read about loss, we must know exactly what it is that we are losing.
And there are even occasional moments of optimism. In “Seven Sleepers,” we watch as Alfons, a hapless young vegetable farmer, tries to woo a girl named Lydia. After meeting her at a concert, he offers to let her stay the night. As she settles into his guest room, she begins to ask for things that fall beyond the scope of Alfons’ experience: a quick drink, a spare t-shirt, something to smoke. He pulls back, and she pulls back, distressed, and we are certain that their story will end in separation—but then Alfons steps forward again. “He went up to her, wiped the tears away from his thumb, and kissed her….Don’t go, he whispered. I don’t want you to go.” In these lines, Stamm reveals the warmth simmering beneath his prose.
The achievement of this collection, then, is not a small one. The style evokes absurdity, but the stories themselves are saved from being absurd. It is not always courageous to simply tour through life’s moments of futility and failure. Stamm examines these moments with the riskier project of exploring the messy humanity exposed therein. He invites us to recognize ourselves there—and to do so without shame.