Controlled Emotionsby Margaux Wexburg
You Are Not A Stranger Here
(Nan A. Talese, Doubleday)
Adam Haslett’s first book, nine stories collected under the title You Are Not A Stranger Here, has received much attention since it was chosen by Jonathan Franzen— live on the air— as the second selection in the Today Show Book Club. Asked to explain his choice, Franzen answered that, 1) he had taught Haslett in a workshop years before, and 2) he thought the American reading public was afraid of short stories— hardly a glowing recommendation, and not a great morning-television-rebound for the man who brought down Oprah’s book club.
The opening story, “Notes to My Biographer,” comes by way of Frances Ford Coppola’s Zoetrope All-Story, and was cited in Zoetrope’s nomination for a National Magazine Award. In it, a seventy-three year old inventor, Franklin Caldwell Singer— a veteran with a history of mental illness— narrates a visit to his son in Venice, California, where he is living with a man. Franklin is hardly a welcome guest, with good reason. “Notes” is convincing in its slow revelation of the expanse between reality and Franklin’s understanding of it, but proves craft heavy. Standard in form (the unreliable narrator takes on the world) and meticulous in execution (the dramatic irony builds at a careful, steady pace), it loses the freedom to be vital. Rather than reminding us to think about life, “Notes” prompts us to think about writing.
Another highly structured portrait of an obsessive intellect— revealed in the transcripts of a young man’s “interviews” with friends and acquaintances, and letters between the two psychologists who have been treating him— employs another rather obvious device: man questions others, and by doing so, reveals much about himself. Again, while impressively tight and clean, “My Father’s Business” retains the compact feel of an exercise, skillfully executed, without much emotional resonance.
But some pieces do offer a bit more. “The Beginnings of Grief” explores the unsettling coping mechanisms of a high school student, recently orphaned. After his mother’s suicide and his father’s accidental death (a suspiciously tidy turn of events that might have seemed even less likely in the days before Dave Eggers), the boy moves in with an elderly neighbor, opting to finish high school in his hometown. Life becomes unrecognizably surreal; at one point, he returns home with blood on his shirt, but rather than show concern, his host fails to recognize him. Her daughter must remind her who he is: “THE BOY! The one who lives with us.” In the coming weeks, he takes little pleasure in anything other than his obsession with a classmate, a tough guy by the name of Gramm. The two young men, seemingly from opposite ends of the earth, fall into a brief, violently sexual relationship; the discovery of which is the most believable part of the story, though in retrospect one sees the seeds of this climax planted somewhat clumsily throughout.
The story that most redeems the collection is “Divination,” which opens with eleven-year-old Samuel’s premonition of his elderly Latin teacher’s death. When the boy learns from his older brother, Trevor, that their father had a similarly foreboding sense just before his brother died, he begins to fear something supernatural in his perceptions, in his genes. Soon, on vacation in Wales with his family, Samuel dreams that Trevor is in a boating accident and feels compelled to tell his parents about his visions. They do their best to convince him that, in spite of both imagined and real dangers in the world, they all must push forth; that there is never a good enough reason to live in fear. Which would be a lovely and subtle thing for a story to assert, and exactly the sort of vexed and complicated lesson our real-life delusions tend to yield. But Haslett is uncomfortable putting down the pen without a more mechanical resolution. Life, then— and Haslett’s story— come out looking far less interesting than we might otherwise have thought.
This is a book about control: about longing for it and about wanting desperately to lose it. In “Devotion,” a woman and her brother spend an afternoon preparing for a visit from a man the both of them have loved, trying to marshal their emotions and their fates by organizing their dishes, their furniture, their clothes. Samuel’s greatest fear in “Divination” is that he asserts some controlling force from the things that unwittingly cross his mind— against his will, simply by falling asleep. In “The Beginnings of Grief,” our narrator seeks helplessness, delighting in Gramm’s brutality, curling up on the floor and enduring the blows.
You Are Not A Stranger Here is an intelligent collection on themes of order and sense, diminished by possessing these characteristics to a fault. Haslett, a smart and fastidious writer, puts on a good show, but however deftly he manipulates his players, we can still see the strings. In the end, we care more for his intellect and voice— for the qualities that carry over from one story to the next— than we do for any character in particular. It’s clear that he has something to say, and, judging by the volume’s reception, it is likely he will get another chance to say it. Let’s hope it’s with more abandon next time around.
Wexburg is a contributing literary critic for the Brooklyn Rail.