What We Were Doing and Where We Were Going

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Five short stories modeled on the works of the old masters make up this smart, witty first collection

Damion Searls’s accomplished and erudite short story collection, What We Were Doing and Where We Were Going, opens with a quote from a novel by the French writer Louis Aragon:

Why does the painter need a model if he’s going to deviate from it? I know the way Matisse laughs with his eyes, and when I put this question to him he laughed thus, silently. He told me, mischievously, that if there were no model one could not deviate from it… I began to love Matisse’s very deviation from the model, the way he takes liberties with it. I understand him now, better than I understand myself.

That epigraph offers the first clue that Searls—a well regarded literary scholar and translator—has arrived upon a unique and fitting concept for his first book of fiction. As becomes clear in the collection’s acknowledgments (spoiler alert?), each of the five stories in this slender yet powerful book is inspired by a specific work from a past master (with the ghost of Jorge Luis Borges also making his presence felt). In “The Cubicles,” Searls re-imagines Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Custom-House” from the point of view of a drone swept up in the dot-com boom and bust; whereas Vladimir Nabokov’s “A Guide to Berlin” has a second life as “A Guide to San Francisco.”

I happily admit that, although I had some vague understanding that muses were cavorting about, I was very much in the dark as to what kind of Matissian “models” Searls was operating under. And that is perhaps the greatest compliment that I can pay this collection. While there is no doubt much pleasure and benefit to be derived from comparing these five stories to their archetypes—and the similarities and deviations here reveal as much about Searls’s source material as they do about his own work—the author is keenly aware that his stories must all succeed on their own merits, independent of their models.

Damion Searls

Damion Searls

And they do. In all five stories—whether it be the portrait of a separating couple embarking on one last vacation together (“Goldenchain”), or the tale of a young writer whose life is circling back on itself (“56 Water Street”)—the writing is vivid and original. Consider the following passages:

When we arrived at last, a beautiful young woman opened the door with a radiant smile and told us where to leave our umbrellas. A second beautiful woman holding a baby wafted past and offered to take our coats, and a third beautiful young woman emerged from the kitchen like a butterfly from a cocoon and asked what we wanted to drink. Angela and I were as if snow-blinded. (“56 Water Street”)

Some time before, at the height of the internet boom, the jaunty yet autocratic leader I have already mentioned decreed that the “e” in “Prophet” should become italic, and it did not seem worthwhile to go back and make the name consistent: as at the birth of our Savior, a new era had begun, and you can now see at a glance whether an entryway sign or monument in stone or ID card dates from the new dispensation or the barbaric, pagan past. (“The Cubicles”)

Nothing old-fashioned or gimmicky there, and throughout What We Were Doing and Where We Were Going the sharp humor, impressive intelligence, and vivid imagination of the author is evident. At the end, yes, I was anxious to revisit the works of Gide, Hawthorne, Inoue, Nabokov, and Landolfi—but even more eager to read the next piece of fiction by Damion Searls.