In “Waiting,” a story in one of Stuart Dybek’s two new rhapsodic collections, the narrator, Jack, contemplates an essay he’d once read about Hemingway. The essay was about how all of Hemingway’s characters who wait—for another person, for death, for pain to diminish—are wounded in one way or another. Jack, like Dybek, is a poet who grew up on the south side of Chicago. Between teaching gigs, Jacks rents a cottage in Northern Michigan where he takes his lover Liesel for long weekends. On Labor Day, when she doesn’t show, Jack panics and is flung into “an inescapable flashback.” The story explores many Dybek tropes: lost love (or love in limbo), loners, memory, impinging literary allusions, exile, and music. Unlike Hemingway, though, Dybek’s sentences are as languid as ever. That’s not to say that they’re lazy, but roomy and rhythmic.
It can be tempting, when reading a Dybek story, to see that double space between paragraphs and want to skip ahead, in order to get back to the narrative situation. Stories in both collections jump time, scenes, and sometimes even characters and/or narrators, and the rewards for those who seek metaphorical connections rather than cause and effect are many. Surrender your preconceptions of beginning-middle-end, and you’ll be more than satisfied. This takes patience: Stuart Dybek won’t hold up to a lazy-Sunday skim on the beach. This isn’t a David Mitchell or Hari Kunzru kind of time-jump, but one more akin to Joyce or Proust or Woolf, where the only signal you get for a shift is a word or two, maybe an image. You have to really love language and rhythm and let your guard down a little.
The good news? Even when Dybek is seemingly noodling around or toying with us, his sentences are always a pleasure to read. Take for instance this one: “If the myth about a hundred words of snow were true, there’d be a word for snow-erasing-its-own-memory.” It’s a commonplace thing that any aesthetically-inclined soul might ponder, but few manage to get it down on a page. Or there’s this one, which feels like manifesto or a guiding rule for reading Dybek:
“Within a trance, the past signaled at her peripheral vision, too elusive to be seen directly. Remembering was like trying to call back a dream whose fragmented imagery and troubling emotion had bled into her waking hours. Its protean transformations defied the logic of language and the linearity of a story.”
Paper Lantern contains nine longer stories where self-alienated men and women attempt to reconstruct the missteps of failed romance. “Tosca” kicks off the collection, opening with a scene of a man facing a firing squad. It’s hard not to think of García Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, especially since José Arcadio Buendía, first and foremost, remembers. Like a flea, the narrator of “Tosca” bounces from the mind of the condemned man to the minds of the soldiers. One soldier recalls a post-coital night with his lover. Soon, though, you realize that the narrator is not an all-seeing-eye but a young man attending an opera, gazing on in speculative fancy. The narrator is reminded of his friendship with Ren, who was “The first of three friends of mine who said, over the years, that he was living his life like an opera.” The narrator recalls living in New York and going to Europe, and the story shifts to his relationship with a woman named Clair. The story continues in this manner, surprisingly constructing a speculative moment of longing in the context of the opera scene next to his own story of lost love and regret. Single moments define Dybek’s characters, single sensuous moments that stir up the past, not trips across the globe or political upheavals. Epiphanies take a long time, but in a way they also live outside of time, manifesting in a momentary flash. It’s a paradox to which Dybek is immaculately tuned.
“Oceanic,” one of the most memorable stories in Paper Lantern, begins with the omniscient calm of a myth. A lifeguard returns to duty after a shark attack, awaiting the dolphin that saved him so he can give proper thanks. The story breaks and pivots to Bryan, who mourns the better days of his relationship with Mariel. Feeling a bit flat, he wants to be that “crazy-about-each-other-couple-living-for-the-moment we’d once been.” He broods over Mariel’s peculiar umbrella and, because she doesn’t divulge her past, and because he is nostalgic, he creates a mythical one for her. It’s a much-discussed tendency in the construction of fiction: why does this person do the thing they do? The fantastical turn in the story, however, reveals more about Bryan than about Mariel. He needs something fantastical to parse out the real. Like many of the stories in the collection, the place it inhabits is less the Chicago of Dybek’s past collections and more of a space of memory and imagination. Stories are set on beaches, in cabins, labs, and back alleys that could seemingly be anywhere.
Ecstatic Cahoots, composed of fifty shorter stories, is more of a mixed bag. Some stories, a mere paragraph or page long, feel like warm-ups, little exercises or glimmers, something a writer might jot down in a pocket notebook. Which is often the problem with flash fiction. But the best moments of this collection round out Dybek’s trajectory with the form of the all-out fable. In “A Confluence of Doors,” a man in a raft comes upon a little island of doors. Strange details amass. “He’d hoped, at least, for the company of his shadow.” But it’s gone. Instead, what greets him is a profusion of knocking. In “Ant,” Stan naps next to his girlfriend under a maple tree, and when an ant starts pestering his foot, he remembers a terrifying story his uncle had once read to him about ants that can consume, ants with “mandibles that could strip a man down to his bones.” And in “Ice,” a young couple ventures out on a frozen lake, and when the girl expresses her anxiety about the lake’s translucence and the ominous sounds, he urges her to keep going. These are by turns haunting and affecting, harrowing stories delivered with a directness and an economy more akin to the stories in Dybek’s first collection, “Childhood and Other Neighborhoods.”
As you read along, the overlapping characters—or character names or lines of dialogue—repeat or allude to one another, and you start to feel like part of a club. Dybek even goes so far as to include the same line of dialogue in three different stories. “Misterioso,” which starts off the collection, consists of a single exchange—
“You’re going to leave your watch on?”
“You’re leaving on your cross?”
—a variation of which appears two other times in the book.
These are generous, lively books that span Dybek’s career. Together, they create the dizzying effect just shy of of a Collected Stories. It’s clear that Dybek has become more comfortable with the associative and the metaphorical, and he’s constantly seeking disparate anecdotes or details and mashing them together to create that unifying effect essential to the form.
At the tail end of Ecstatic Cahoots, “Happy Ending” offers up a well-deserved break from the lyrical. It opens with a party at a New York condo, where “The Mogul” treats a Broadway cast to Thai takeout after buying the film option. The guests weigh their own happiness against that of a so-called happy ending. The story, of course, takes a romantic turn, but not without the metafictional foray—another new fixture to the Dybek oeuvre.
What I love about these collections is that Stuart Dybek, like he says in a Ploughshares interview, doesn’t mind mimesis. Meaning that sometimes he tries to extend language, to make it mimic another medium. He often writes to music and lets the words come without worrying about making sense. This sums up Dybek’s greatest strength and his greatest weakness. In his famous story “We Didn’t,” the rhythm gives way to meaning, reflecting the situation and the inner landscape of the character, the longing and the sweet sadness. Sometimes, though, the glistening lights and gleaming reflections of water and steady murmurs of rain grow tiresome. Sometimes the guitarist can noodle on too long. Which raises a great question. How long will you endure the noodling before hitting the skip track button? Dybek’s stories often lie situated in this ambivalent chasm. At his narrative best, in “Happy Endings” and “Paper Lanterns,” Dybek’s poetic language is subtle and necessarily reflects the atmosphere. At his loosest, the story gets swallowed up in sound. Is this a criticism? Not necessarily. It all depends on the mood of the reader. You can go see Wilco and watch Nels Cline noodle during a solo a little too long, and even though you’re self-consciously cool, you adjust, because it’s so damn good. This is the similar effect of Dybek’s waxing rhythmic. It can be frustrating, demanding, disorienting, even distracting, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not thoughtful or, dare I say, imperative to understanding the incantations of memory. It doesn’t seem fair to dismiss such gorgeous sentences in the name of narrative thrust. Instead, take these collections slowly. Approach them as you might a book of poetry. Read one, put it down, go back to your novel or audiobook for a few days, and then pick up another. Unless you’re feeling ambitious. In which case, dive right in.