Stories that mine memories
By Stuart Dybek
Farrar, Straus, & Giroux. 209 pp. $24
Fifty Short Stories
By Stuart Dybek
Farrar, Straus, & Giroux. 195 pp. $14
Reviewed by Kevin Grauke
Stuart Dybek has published only three books of short stories in 28 years - the last one was I Sailed With Magellan in 2003 - so word that not one, but two new collections of his were coming out was reason for anticipation and celebration. Especially since the publication of his second collection, The Coast of Chicago (1990), Dybek has been revered by readers and fellow writers alike for the poignant lyricism of his stories, almost all of which are set beneath the L trains of his hometown of Chicago, especially within its Polish neighborhoods.
While many of the stories in both Paper Lantern and Ecstatic Cahoots are also set in Chicago, these stories are not nearly as Chicago-centric, though Dybek is in no danger of losing his place as the city's preeminent literary son (a post that, it may be argued, he's held since the death of Saul Bellow in 2005). What remains mostly unchanged, however, is his fascination with the critical role that memory plays in our lives. "Every man's memory is his private literature," said Aldous Huxley, and it's this private literature that Dybek so often explores.
The nine stories of Paper Lantern, as its subtitle indicates, concern love, as well as its inseparable companions, romance, lust, and sex. For the most part, the love at issue in these stories is the love that lives now only in memory, just as it does in two of his best-loved and most-anthologized stories, "We Didn't" and "Pet Milk."
In the title story, the narrator is beset by memories of a former lover while he watches a building burn. He first remembers taking a photograph of her gazing upon a factory in flames. His thoughts then move on to other moments of that weekend in Chicago - other photographs taken of her, the drive back to Iowa, sex in the backseat. Not until near the end of the story does the narrator's attention reluctantly return to the burning building, the catalyst of his memories.
Such a structure is common with Dybek. His stories often rely on associative, not causal, logic. They start in the present, but something triggers a memory, and down the rabbit hole goes the character, hopping from one reminiscence to another. Rarely is the present important, and this is because, as one character puts it, "the moments of our lives go out of existence before we're conscious of having lived them. It's only a relatively few moments that we get to keep and carry with us for the rest of our lives. Those moments are our lives." Asks a character in a story from the other collection, "Someday I may be looking back on being in love, and which me will be more real?"
As that question illustrates, the stories of Ecstatic Cahoots frequently concern both love and memory, as well, though in a much more condensed fashion. Out of its 50 stories, more than half are fewer than four pages long. While Paper Lantern certainly possesses Dybek's usual mixture of realism and surrealism, the recognizable and the enigmatic, Ecstatic Cahoots is the more dreamlike and adventuresome of the two. Some of the stories could easily find places for themselves within Paper Lantern, but many function less as conventional stories than as lyrical bursts of images and sensations.
As an example, take these opening lines from the one-page story, "Drive": "Lost: the hot-pink bullet from the spent cartridge of lip gloss he's found lodged between the gearbox and seat. And the beat she always caught, chasing from station to station as they raced between red lights. The scent of summer evaporating at noon - coconut, sweat, the salt lick of her skin scorched against turquoise vinyl. Evening's perfume of broken heat, a tide of lawn sprinklers whipping through the dark as moons emerge: each neighborhood, each roof, each windowpane sending up its own."
Sentences such as these delight without necessarily doing anything more than what they do here, and that has always been one of the pleasures of reading Dybek; what he is able to call into being with only a few words can amaze us in ways that few other writers can.
Despite passages such as this, however, Ecstatic Cahoots is the lesser of the two collections. Too many of its stories fail to make much of an impression, at least in comparison to Paper Lantern, which ranks along with The Coast of Chicago and I Sailed With Magellan as a collection that deserves to be read and reread by those who cherish words and all that they evoke when they are carefully strung together by a virtuoso.
Kevin Grauke is the author of "Shadows of Men," a collection of stories. He is an associate professor of English at La Salle University.