The Myriad Conflagrations of our Times: Chloe N. Clark’s Patterns of Orbit
Twenty-five stories comprise Patterns of Orbit, the most recent short story collection by Chloe N. Clark. Sixteen of them are written in first person, two of those from a first-person plural perspective. Point of view feels critical throughout this collection. Whether a character is observing the dark cosmos through the portal of a spaceship, or catching, through the trees from the window of a car, the sputterings of a Lake Superior in open rebellion, the stories are at once eerie and lyric, speculative and familiar, shifting from I to you to they to we and back to I. Characters in Patterns of Orbit are pulled to one another—they overlap but do not collide. What is it that keeps people (and other sentient beings) from one another, given the pull of desire? In deep space or unfathomable ocean, the tension is as tight as an airlock, and loneliness is the sound of a beeping monitor.
“There Is the World Within This Window” opens the book. In block paragraphs reminiscent of a ship’s log, the AI narrator says, “I don’t remember being born, but neither do humans.” The program is tasked with ferrying “two thousand souls” to a viable destination, to safety. Not all souls will arrive. The AI, when necessary, must decide what losses can be sustained. Fifty are culled from the mission, and as they depart, the AI experiences their dreams—dreams of love and joy, dreams of the physical earth. More must go, and the AI takes it upon itself to “erase whole families” rather than have one member wake up in the future alone, without kin.
The AI is not engineered for empathy, and it is empathy that takes its toll. “Time is not kind to travelers,” observes the AI, who manifests kindness, and is met with indifference once the sleeping awaken again. Kindness, in fact, is deemed an error in its programming.
Stories in Patterns of Orbit range in tone and tenor from classic science fiction to fabulist fiction to weird fiction to prose poem. “A Place You Know” gives off a Twilight Zone vibe, and centers on a family road trip—fields and billboards, boredom and the promise of pancakes—an annual pilgrimage not to the county fair or to some festival of summer fruit, but to the City of the Dead. “The Skin You Call Your Own,” is a dark and sexy vignette told from the point of view of a witch who speaks in tongues, with tongue, pulling the darkness from her paramour. In the moment of climax, she drains his fear and feasts on it. In “Simultaneity,” a daughter observes that her mother is happiest when she is painting her grim and desolate paintings. In a moment of ars poetica, the daughter “makes the connection only years later, how space can also be a collection of darkness and shadows”—how art serves to leech the heavy darkness from the artist.
Dread, existential and otherwise, permeates the collection. In “The Waves Hear Every Promise You Make,” Lake Superior is a massive body of water—“always shifting between sight and secrets” —in the throes of cataclysm. In “Long In the Tooth,” one of two stories narrated from a second person point of view, the growl of a wolf is compared to thunder: “And you count and you count before you remember that thunder follows lightning and not the other way around. You are waiting for disaster and it’s already come.” Second person point of view: literarily, the most legit way to give oneself a talking-to.
In this collection, the reader can slipstream from space shuttle to submarine, from Grimm to Goldilocks to Charybdis, because a cautionary tale that’s never heeded is never out of date—is as evergreen as our disappearing forests. In “Static,” one twin says to another, “There are so many things we’ve never been able to map completely: the bottom of the ocean, the brain while it dreams, other planets.” The unknowable, as many of these stories suggest, is misperceived as a challenge, as a state to be overcome, as a state that can be overcome. Humans are ambitious, and inattentive. In “Supernova,” a character says, “Maybe we never really take account of those slow untanglings until the knot has already come undone.” Which begs the question: What is distracting humans from their own condition, as well as from the unravelings of the earth they live on? There is the question, too, of where a body might not belong. “It was a game about edges,” says the other twin, but clean geometries don’t hold in water, or in boundless space, if they hold at all.
The pandemic comes dressed in a story about an astronaut who returns in her shuttle from a too-long mission to discover nearly everyone on her space station has died or been infected with a mysterious disease. Covid echoes poignantly in the voice of the first person plural narrator of “We Are Still,” who summons a ravaged and abandoned landscape: “We make noise to fill it, our own happiness an out-of-key duet, in the silence from all sides.”
In the very beautiful and aching “A Sense of Taste,” a scientist whose husband has died identifies the taste of an alien fruit with the sweet, piney memories of their honeymoon on Lake Superior. Prior to this, her grief had put her in a kind of stupor. Memory surges painfully with the fresh taste of the fruit, but as the fruit rots and becomes inedible, the feeling is lost. “Our senses are amnesiacs,” the narrator says, and “[m]emory is like a discount bakery, where everything is just a little stale.”
In other stories, Clark considers the glory and sacrifice and mythologies of high school football and college basketball. “Underwater Even Bells Sound Like Bodies” is, by any other name, a poem, and no wonder, as Clark is a poet. In all its subject and formal disparity, the collection’s music is a consistent and unifying pleasure. As are the extended metaphors. In this era of rhetorical recklessness, it is a wonder to circle themes and images and language with such ingenuity and care.
One of the most intimate pieces in the collection is “Even the Night Sky Can Learn to Be a Fist.” In block paragraphs, the first person narrator, an educator, is unable to make herself understood by the doctors from whom she seeks relief from her pain. One of them tells her to stop watching the news. “I’m sick, I said, not complacent,” she tells them, and is told, in response, that “[s]ome people are just more sensitive.” Her pain is singular to her individual nervous system, according to them, and not indicative of systemic dread, systemic rage, fueled by the myriad conflagrations of our times.
The same narrator confesses, “I’d sit under the sky until I felt closer to myself.” In her insomnia, the dead stars comfort through the light they provide. In Clark’s collection, a night sky is dark, and light. Vastness can be an intimacy, or a violence. A fist is a symbol of violence, and of solidarity. Disease is acute, or the slow and steady demise of the mothership, the earth.
In these stories, characters face a near future that might very well crush them under its atmospheric pressure. Other fates in Patterns of Orbit include drowning, or floating away. Best case scenario, a body is released from gravity and relieved of its darkness through friendship, or love, or art. Round and round we go, where we stop, nobody knows. And in the unknowing there is depth, and flavor.