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No, Beatty! Don’t start telling your English teacher about your essay on Pope when he has his fingers in your knickers!

Devotees of close reading will want to read Ether, Evgenia Citkowitz’s collection of stories and a novella, more than once. Each reading will reveal greater nuance and depth. If you’re someone who likes to plug authors’ names into search engines, you’ll discover that Citkowitz—she’s a Guinness heiress!—belongs to the storied Anglo-Irish nobility, which may account for the rarefied atmosphere of this debut collection.

On a practical level, Citkowitz’s characters are preoccupied by the trials of second-home ownership, the need to schedule “privates” with yoga teachers, and whether it’s fair to accuse Mummy of ruining one’s life when she’s just come in from a party and hasn’t yet had a chance to take off her pinnacle heels. Questions of obligation and shame concern these characters deeply. Slightly unhinged, they muddle through life, often disappointing one another. Their stories, sometimes vague and wandering, could likewise disappoint the reader—but for the most part Citkowitz only flirts with failure on her way to success.

Take “Happy Love,” about the backyard burial of a child’s pet hamster. Candayce, the child’s mother, uses a spoon to dig Peanut’s grave because she doesn’t know where the shovel is kept. Even if we fail to sympathize with Candayce, whose privileged life increasingly comes to resemble a shell game, we’re intrigued by her search for meaning. In grotesque detail, she recounts Peanut’s dental problems. Meanwhile, her husband announces the birth of his child by another woman. Before the banality of it all can overwhelm the reader, Citkowitz provides a key to the story’s existential gloom: “She remembered her mother’s transfiguration. The three weeks it took for her limbs to waste, her skin to turn a liverish yellow, and her mind to wash away on a sea of morphine. Afterward, the jocose Irish nurse opened the windows to set free her soul.”

Just as Peanut the hamster has symbolic import, so does the eponymous piece of antique furniture in “The Bachelor’s Table.” For Jonathan, the question of whether he’s obliged to pay a fair price for the table comes to bear on his sense of self-worth as the love child of an esteemed art critic who never publicly acknowledges paternity. Peevish and self-absorbed, Jonathan delights in toying with the antique shop’s owner. He is unmoved by the tears of the confused, elderly woman who mistakenly sold him the table for a fraction of its value. When the veneer is damaged due to a careless mistake, Jonathan exults.

He gains our sympathy when he bumps up against limits ruthlessly established by the author. Citkowitz can be poetic, as when Jonathan first discovers the table: “The moment he saw it, he knew what it was. Like a chance encounter with a deliberately forgotten love, he felt a rush of disbelief, followed by plunging disappointment and longing.” Such prose sets up an off-balance feeling—the slightly unhinged quality of mind that in these stories seems inseparable from cultural refinement. But Citkowitz doles out poetic language sparingly. More characteristic is her bluntness, as when Jonathan, upon making the happy discovery that he doesn’t resent his wife, thinks, “The opposite of resentment is what? Something good. Her only shortcoming was that she was married to him.”

The despicable trait of using other people to achieve one’s own ends is relieved by hilarious social ineptitude in “Leavers’ Events.” Beatty, who attends an exclusive London girls’ school, needs an escort to the opera. When her sexy English teacher accepts the invitation, she hopes to get lucky with him on her mother’s couch. What follows is nails-on-the-blackboard-style humor, where a reader risks embarrassing herself in public by admonishing fictional characters out loud: No, Beatty! Don’t start talking about your essay on Pope when he has his fingers in your knickers!

London yields to Manhattan, Manhattan to the Pacific Palisades. The novella, “Ether,” follows the downward trajectory of a writer whose career takes him from New York to Los Angeles, where he immediately meets—and inexplicably weds—a famous actress. With little warning, the narrative shifts focus first to the actress herself, and then to a downtrodden waitress and her autistic son. In the tangle of events, it’s easier to determine the motivation—profit—of the sleazy drifter who befriends “the retarded boy” than it is to understand the attraction between the writer and his actress wife. When the drifter makes a porn video that destroys the boy’s friendship with the actress, we’re meant to see a parallel between such exploitation and a too-autobiographical novel left out for the wife to find. But the connection feels strained. In the longer form of the novella, too many unhinged characters add up to not enough storyline.

Try approaching the stories by asking, is this one the ghost story? In the eerie fictions of Ether, a character’s disorientation—whether due to supernatural causes, mental illness, or bad choices—serves as a metaphor for the unsettled times in which we all live.

Karen Laws lives in Berkeley, CA. Her story “Paolo’s Turn” appears in the Summer 2011 issue of The Georgia Review. You can follow her on Twitter @karenlaws. More from this author →