Loss and longing sit side-by-side with unexpected humor in Laura van den Berg’s stories, reminding readers of the strange things we encounter every day.
Mythic creatures abound in Laura van den Berg’s debut collection, What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us, but the fear and grief that haunt her characters are the beasts they’ll never escape.
I remember reading the title story in One Story last year. I was in the middle of a busy busy day, but I glanced at the cover to see if I knew the writer. I didn’t, but the title was enough to get to me to the first page. I don’t remember what I was supposed to be doing at the time, but I know it didn’t get done for a while, because after reading the first two paragraphs there was no way I could put it down. The story is about Celia, who must follow her biologist mother around the world after being plucked from high school and a promising swimming career. While her mother studies lemurs in Madagascar, Celia wanders the island trying to understand who and where she’s supposed to be in her newly upturned life. Forbidden from calling her mother “mom,” she’s suspended in an awkward role between child and adult. She can’t be a kid anymore, but her mother doesn’t let her be a grown-up either, because that would mean Celia could leave and her mother would have only her woe and misguided research for company.
What is most admirable here, and throughout this impressive debut collection, is van den Berg’s ability to work with characters in different states of flight and confusion. Celia knows where she does not want to be: not back in New York in high school; not in Alaska with her father, who went for an ice-fishing trip and stayed; not in her mother’s developing country du jour. She wants to be in the water, again suspended between two places, but this time by choice. Her mother tells her she doesn’t have the stamina or guts for it, but Celia isn’t doesn’t listen, having finally embraced open water and the feeling that, at any moment, “she might vanish within it.”
Water features prominently in van den Berg’s stories, which makes sense for a book full of characters adrift in an unknowable world. In “Where We Must Be,” a failed actress takes a job playing Big Foot in a theme park that caters to people who want a Big Foot encounter. She’s involved with her neighbor, a thirty-year-old with cancer, who, as he grows weaker, asks to be taken to the lake because he’s had a dream in which “the world is made of water.” She takes him, against her better judgment, and obliges when he asks her to teach him how to float. She also obliges, finally, when he asks her to do her Big Foot roar, which she’s never done outside the theme park. He drifts out to the middle of the lake while she roars into the darkness, giving voice to the hurt neither of them wants to name.
In “Up High in the Air,” a etymologist’s cuckolded husband obsesses over a mythical beast that lives in Lake Michigan while she tells a friend that, to her, “all bodies of water all look the same… they’re places to get lost in.” And in “Inverness,” a botanist envies a man’s devotion to his search for the Loch Ness Monster and his excitement for what he might find. Having found the flower she’d come looking for in Scotland, she tries to lose it—because being done with her search means having to find a new purpose and return home, where the man who left her now shares their house with another woman.
Absent characters often hover around the edges of these stories. Children long for dead parents; husbands deceased, divorced, or ignored wander in and out of thoughts. Creatures both real and imagined haunt people who fear or pursue them. The main characters themselves are often only half there, and their inability to understand their world means that in many ways it doesn’t matter if they’re in Massachusetts or Madagascar. But alongside all the loss and longing, van den Berg works in a lot of humor and unexpected details that add levity. There’s the woman playing Big Foot, of course, or the mother who calls her daughter to say her hair is on fire. You can imagine lesser writers coming up with just one of these quirky (retch!) ideas and trying to build a collection off of it. But van den Berg’s careful deployment of them within such complex and moving stories removes any potential “wackiness” because the details feel real, and remind you of the strange things you encounter every day.
Reading What the World Will Look Like, you may find yourself feeling as unsure and hungry as the people in it. It’s a nice feeling though, because in the space between stories, you savor the realization that the writing is “working.” Though the characters tell you (or tell their pet fish) that they don’t understand the world, you understand them, and are reminded that no one is ever as alone as they think.