Writers are very interested in the idea of the world.
In 2009 alone, countless books invoking the word “world” in their title were released including The Gone Away World by Nick Harkaway, World Made by Hand by James Howard Kunstler, Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCall, Some Things That Meant the World to Me by Joshua Mohr, The Promised World by Lisa Tucker, The World Before Her by Deborah Weisgall and The World in Half by Christina Henriquez to name a small handful. As a writer, I am not immune to the seductive charms of the world as muse. My master’s thesis was a short story collection entitled How Small the World. Suffice it to say, a lot has been written about the world in a myriad of literary ways. Some might say that everything that could be said about the world has already been written, and yet the best writers manage to find new ways to comment on well-known themes. Such is the case in two recent entries to the ongoing literary conversation about the nature of the world–The Bigness of the World (University of Georgia Press) by Lori Ostlund and What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us (Dzanc) by Laura van den Berg–two books which complement one another in really interesting ways.
One of the most remarkable aspects of The Bigness of the World is how Ostlund explores not only the physical geography of this world but also the intimate inner geographies of her varied characters. These inner lives are detailed with such dense, tightly coiled and precise language it becomes easy, as a reader, to find yourself immersed in their hopes, their worries, their minute obsessions, joys and fears. Ostlund wields language in terribly complex ways building exceptional sentences, long and swollen with nuance and history, creating narratives that take the long way around. Each story holds a certain very smart wit that endears. Nowhere does this style shine more than in And Down We Went, a story told in reverse, a story told in subtle layers that moves forward as it steps backward, a story that ends on such a perfect note as to leave the reader feeling wistful. In the third part of this story, Ostlund writes, lastly of the first time she was shat upon by a bird having already detailed the third and second instances of this indignity:
“The first time happened long ago when I was a young girl growing up in that small town in Minnesota with no idea whatsoever that one day I might find myself in love or that the object of my affection might be a woman (moreover, a woman who would someday cheat on me) or that I might find myself a teacher living in such places as Spain and Malaysia, places vastly different from the world that I then knew, but, as it turned out, places where birds would defecate on me nonetheless.”
In that one sentence, she both tells the entire story and sets the stage for the beginning and the end. It is a clever, clever piece of writerly work.
In the title story, the bigness of the world is not found in the world itself, but rather in the home of the narrator and her younger brother Martin as they grapple with the loss of their eccentric babysitter who widened their world with her uniqueness and the disintegration of their parents’ marriage. Their day to day life is rendered so completely and Ostlund manages to capture the curious and slightly confused perspective of precocious children without condescension.
Bed Death, Nobody Walks to the Mennonites, and the Children Beneath the Seat are stories where Ostlund shifts her attention to Malaysia, South America, Morocco and couples who no longer share the intimacies they once did. The world expands in these stories to hot and humid locales where the distance between each story’s couple yawns vaster than the distance between where they are and that which they know. Â In each of these stories the characters possess the same complex inner geographies found in The Bigness of the World and yet their lives seem somewhat smaller, so constrained are they by love that has faded, inertia and ennui.
Ostlund focuses intensely on people with austere, Midwestern sensibilities. The stories that comprise The Bigness of the World are quite different from traditional literary fare in that often, the people in Ostlund’s stories are in lesbian relationships but the sexuality is never the point. In fact, Ostlund makes plain what her characters think and feel or think they feel but there is a curious and distinct absence of physical intimacy between most of the couples whose lives to which we are privy–couples who don’t make love or have angry sex or interact with one another’s bodies as sexual in any way at all. I would not attribute this absence to prudery but it is fascinating nonetheless.
Many of the stories are set a world away, yet those foreign locations, like matters of sexuality, are almost beside the point. While there are moments when these stories focus on cultural clashes and the bewilderment of immersing oneself into another society, in most stories, the more interesting and complex stories are those that reflect a profound loneliness that cannot be assuaged by distance or proximity. In this collection, Ostlund found perfect, heartbreaking ways to demonstrate that despite the bigness of the world it is always quite small.
Laura van den Berg’s What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us also treats the world as its stage. Like Ostlund, no matter where her characters find themselves, they nurture complex inner geographies. Where Ostlund’s writing is dense and tightly controlled, I found that van den Berg let her words stretch out and that there was a certain and moving fragility to her stories and the people in them. Oftentimes writers try to make their writing quirky at the expense of the writing in itself. While I would not characterize the stories in this collection as quirky, I would say that van den Berg’s characters often find themselves in unique and extraordinary circumstances.
As with many collections, certain themes emerge in this collection–the complex relationships between children and parents and the ways in which children so often end up doing the work of parenting their parents; the complex relationships between men and women; bodies of water as deep and unknowable, the world always impossibly large. The women in these stories seem at once overwhelmed by the world yet fully in control despite their missteps, their mistakes, their small miseries. Â van den Berg’s characters are refreshingly unapologetic. Despite their often flawed choices, they exude a certain confidence and steely determination to forge ahead. In these stories, the aforementioned fragility is not synonymous with weakness.
Where We Must Be tells the story of a failed actress working as a Bigfoot impersonator and involved in an awkward and uncertain relationship with Jimmy, a dying man. In Goodbye My Loveds, which may well be my favorite story in the collection, Shelby is raising her younger brother Denver after the death of their parents in the Amazon. Denver is obsessed with patrolling and a hole in front of their home he believes is a tunnel. van den Berg tells the story of a young woman forced into parenthood long before she’s ready, a woman who fiercely loves her young brother but does not understand him, who wants her brother to be normal, who wants to be normal herself.
“My brother would hug my knees and tell me not to cry and I would feel ashamed for even thinking of leaving him. It still came on every now and then, when his map of South America–nothing more than a shudder of strange, liquid energy, but sometimes I had to stand outside the apartment until it passed, the air sweeping into me like some kind of cleansing light, pushing out thoughts about voices and solitude and the possibility of living a different kind of life.
In Still Life With Poppies, Juliana is abandoned in Paris by her husband Cole. The story tells of the before and the after. In the before, Juliana bears witness to her husband’s mental degeneration and in the after, she waits for his return even though she knows that return will never come. Catherine’s husband abandons her by dying in The Rainy Season. She travels to Africa to work as a missionary and is reluctant to leave the war torn Congo long after she should. Whether these stories take place in New York or Scotland or Madagascar, they are always meticulously researched and written. I do not know if van den Berg has traveled the world but through her stories, she gives a very good impression of someone who has. There is an authenticity to this collection not often found in writing that takes up this grand idea of the world. Beyond this authenticity, the stories that make up What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us left me with the impression that wherever we are in the world, no matter how far afield we travel, we cannot escape ourselves.