From time to time, I’ll be reviewing new books that are worthy of special mention. Here’s a review of a new short story collection by my Vermont College of Fine Arts mentor, David Jauss:
In his exquisitely crafted new book, Glossolalia: New and Selected Stories, David Jauss suggests that the most important moments in life may
be those we miss because we’re blind to them.
Jauss is a master at exploring life’s negative spaces, and he builds an entire story around failed recognition. “What They Didn’t Notice” is structured as brief, distinct episodes that delineate what each character fails to observe. The result is an eerily moving account of a day in the life of a man who receives a cancer diagnosis. Each description of what the man, his wife, the doctor, and even a bird outside the exam room “did not notice” underlines that our isolation and fear may be relieved by a simple shift in perception—have we courage to take it.
In “Tell Me Something,” an elderly woman is dying in a hospital bed. “She hated to admit it, but the worst thing about dying wasn’t the pain…but the boredom.” Emma is guarding a secret: “She loved her husband…but she was more bored with him than with any one or anything. Each night she prayed to die without him finding out how tired she was of him…” Finally exasperated, she asks Henry, “Tell me something…Just make it something you’ve never told anyone before. Not me or anyone else…Something secret. Something that matters.”
After a few rounds of marital irritation—(humorously involving his clicking dentures), Henry replies honestly. The rare move into emotional transparency creates an intimacy from which it’s apparent that the most important events of their lives may not be those they remember, but the accumulated weight of a “lifetime” of experience.
Unlike some writers who use their characters as front men for their own ideas, Jauss wields a subtle power. He is masterfully restrained, a chameleon writer whose characters are wildly different from one another. He writes with the simplicity of his master Anton Chekov, and Jauss’s story
“Misery” would be hard to choose from a lineup of “authentic” Chekov stories.
In his essay, “Autobiographobia,” which is excerpted on his web site, Jauss says, “In my stories and poems, I try to write my way into many characters whose lives I know nothing, or next to nothing, about. On paper, I have been–or at least tried to be–a nun, a serial killer, a bag lady, a nine-year-old boy, a 99-year-old man…a minor league baseball player from the Dominican Republic.
“I believe that escaping the self, imagining the life of another, is a noble, even religious, act,” Jauss goes on. He certainly trusts his characters. In “Deliverance” he risks letting a crazy, deluded loser run away with her own story—without bringing in the voice of reason to assert the author’s good intentions, and especially, without succumbing to the fear that readers might not “like” her. He merely “transcribes” the woman’s interview with a dispassionate detective called in to investigate the upheaval she’s caused. By staying out of the way, Jauss makes canny and disturbing observations about our human capacity for self-delusion.
The title story was included in Best American Short Stories. Told in retrospect, it’s a devastating account of a lesson learned too late. A man remembers how, as a teenager, he treated his mentally ill father with contempt. Before we know it, we’re standing in the adult Danny’s shoes, as he reflects that if he and his father had talked about the episode later on, “I could have told him what I had since grown to recognize—that I loved him.” But they never had that talk.
Recently, I mentioned to my mother that I was reading a book by Charles Dickens. “How improving!” she exclaimed. Well, now it’s documented. A 2013 study conducted at the New School for Social Research posits that reading literary fiction improves a reader’s capacity for empathy. A New Yorker response questions whether, in fact, too much exposure to the grand sufferings in literary fiction might be overwhelming. “Sharing of these characters’ emotions could well turn a person inward, away from humanity altogether.”
We might also ask the researchers why people continue to write serious fiction. If it’s an effective softener of hard hearts, why do we still need it? The answer lies in the negative spaces. David Jauss, like a kinder, gentler Flannery O’Connor, is a cartographer of the heart’s blind spots. When one of his characters breaks from a well-worn rut to reach for empathy or forgiveness, the difficulty of the escape only emphasizes its beauty.
(Full disclosure: Jauss was my mentor for a year in the MFA in Writing program at Vermont College of Fine Arts, and I worship the guy. But if there was something not to praise in this book, I’d say so.)