A carefully assembled short story collection can be more than just a set of tales: it can offer a distinctive view of a writer's world, multiple glimpses that add up to something greater. If it's a collection of separate stories, there will be a strong sense of imaginative coherence; think, for example, of the fantastical Cornwall of Lucy Wood's Diving Belles (2012). Maybe the stories have the unity of a novel, as in Sam Thompson's Communion Town (2012), with its vision of a city as a different place for each individual. Then there are the books in between, where the stories are linked but not quite a whole. Here the full picture may live in the gaps between as well as within the tales themselves; the vision of fractured parallel worlds in Nina Allan's The Silver Wind (2011) comes to mind. Marek Waldorf's new collection Widow's Dozen falls into the latter category; its very title hints at incompleteness, and that's exactly what we get in its eleven stories and the spaces between them.
The three stories in the book's opening section, "Before," prepare the ground for what is to come. "Fetch" is reasonably low-key: a man goes to visit Aaron, an old college friend who is now blind, and becomes intrigued by Aaron's guide dog, Eva. When he learns that Aaron has died after falling onto a subway track, the narrator agrees to take Eva in—and then wonders if the dog might have misguided Aaron deliberately. There's an effective understatedness to "Fetch": the narrator has been though some personal turmoil and is clearly in a precarious state of mind; the question of whether he's projecting that onto Eva, or whether his fears are genuine, is left open by the cool tone of his voice.
"The Melting Giant" has a slightly stronger sense of fantastication, with its emotionally adrift protagonist who gains at least a facsimile of happiness when he becomes able to see people as they truly are. Then comes "Bitter Angel," which tells the story of a relationship in a series of mostly chronological fragments. The tale's structure reflects the nature of the couple's association: coming together, then drifting apart; never quite close enough to be stable.
This, then, is the foundation of Widow's Dozen: characters who may feel dislocated from each other or themselves, and a sense that quotidian reality is being subtly undermined. Both these characteristics will become more pronounced as Waldorf's collection progresses.
The book's second section, "Otherwise," fills in more specific details of place and time. Most of Waldorf's stories revolve around New York's fictitious Bearden County, where a time capsule was buried in 1974, and things just haven't been the same since (or perhaps they were always like this; it can be tricky to tell, and makes little difference in practice). Strange diseases are rampant in the area; there are pockets of antigravity that may carry people off to who-knows-where; and more besides. But the strangeness is often folded in with the ordinary: for example, "Taken/Not Taken" draws parallels between the teleportation pockets and the ending of relationships; similarly, "Box With Stories Inside" sets a marriage on the rocks against the background of a bizarrely organized apartment building.
Certain characters recur throughout Widow's Dozen, such as the barber Frank Reed, central character of "Seven Clues," a tale that depicts him as a man who never stops talking—who talks to make sense of the world, which is what he tries to do in a different story when talking to others about a pair of mysterious twins. Often, though, the stories remain separate, with characters just glimpsing this strange world, as in "A Visit to the Second Floor," where three young travelers find themselves staying at a sinister hunting lodge. "Over time the shape of things gets harder and harder to disentangle from the shadow" (p. 146), says the narrator of this story; that could just as easily be a comment on the whole collection, where it's the reader who has to find the shape, while the characters stumble around in shadows.
Two final stories, in the section "Too Late," bring a sense not so much of closure as of further stories waiting to be told beyond the scope of the present volume. "Guiding Lights" appears to be set in a future where knowledge of the past has become twisted (protagonist Margaret's father is "involved in the printing and distribution of seditionist tracts, recycling Marks, Angel, Darkman, and Floyd" [p. 263]). During her childhood, Margaret's life and routine were tightly controlled by her father, as he aimed to preserve his memories within her; of course, he had no guarantee that this would work out. There we have an emotional distance between characters once again, and the sense of uncertainty and fragmentation that runs throughout Waldorf's tales.
The closing "Between Moons" pushes Widow's Dozen into science fiction, and offers a sort of rationale for what has gone before—albeit in typically oblique fashion. One of the Bearden residents taken away by an antigravity pocket thinks back to his time on Earth as he travels further and further away. The mixture of deep space and humdrum Earth doesn't quite work here; or at least, it feels a bit out of place following ten stories which have stayed within a relatively ordinary reality (albeit with intrusions of the fantastic). It's also (perhaps inevitably) a little disappointing to have something of an explanation for all the strange events which seemed squarely incomprehensible. Then again, you could turn all that around and see Widow's Dozen as being ornery to the last, keeping the characters center-stage in even its most extravagant flights of fancy; and ultimately remaining as incomplete as it always promised.
Overall, Widow's Dozen is a difficult book to pin down. Its prose is often dense, its eye forever looking to one side of its subject, with the result that it can be frustratingly elusive. Yet there's something in that very elusiveness, the sense of a world transformed and transforming, that wouldn't quite be the same if we could see it clearly. We need the gaps, after all.
David Hebblethwaite was born in the north of England, went to university in the Midlands, and now lives in the south. He has reviewed for various venues, including Vector, The Zone, Fiction Uncovered, and We Love This Book. He blogs at Follow the Thread.
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