The Weather Stations
So far 2011 has been host to an unnerving sequence of “black swan events.” We have witnessed revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, the Gaddafi regime’s assault on its own people, and a horrific earthquake that rocked Japan and set into motion a gruesome nuclear crisis. During strange times like these, the premise of Ryan Call’s debut collection of short stories, The Weather Stations, is surprisingly easy to imagine. The fantastical world Call creates is a world in which the weather is humankind’s ultimate enemy. These ten stories are set in a place rife with “dust devils,” where toads “entombed in dirty blocks of ice” fall from the sky and civilians lather their homes with protective coatings of “anti-cloud foam.”
The opening story, “How We Came to Live in the Sky,” depicts a city that retreats underground until the treacherous weather subsides. With this clearing of the skies, the mayor declares that their city will be rebuilt, but not on the ground. This new city, reminiscent of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, “will raise up into the sky…a cloud city, a city of air currents…a city that will harness the power of the weather.”
Another standout, “Consider the Buzzard,” is a tale about a family whose observations of birds serve them as a weather gauge: “a rosary of starlings perched along the power lines…freed us from the confines of our homes,” and “in the din of shrieking, crying birds southbound for caves outside the city, we knew to lock the shutters and huddle quietly.” The weather worsens and the birds, too frightened to fly, are seen en masse idling in fields and front yards. The family saves as many birds as possible, bringing them into their home, an act of kindness the birds later repay.
In “Windswept,” a wicked family collects violent squalls of wind to sell for profit to “men and women [who] made use of wind…as weapons upon the battlefield, as a force to enslave and manipulate others.” The final story of the collection, “Our Latitude, Our Longitude,” an allegory of the global warming debate, is about a once well-respected meteorologist who is ostracized for his predictions of the ghastly weather to come.
B.R. Myers’s October 2010 review of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, published in the Atlantic, criticized not only Franzen, but also a certain faction of contemporary fiction writers, for creating worlds in which “nothing important can happen.” These lackluster worlds, Myers theorized, are created by use of “strenuously contemporary” subject matter and overly “matter-of-fact,” “juvenile” prose.The Weather Stations serves as a testament that there are indeed contemporary fiction writers who fashion worlds where remarkable things can and do happen. Call’s decorated, fanciful prose has a nostalgia to it that recalls a time before the onslaught of blogs and 140-character tweets. Occasionally, the ornate sentences seem a touch overwritten and would have benefited from a scrupulous edit, however this is just a small fault. Perhaps the prime shortcoming of the collection is its portrayal of women. As the prose feels from another time, unfortunately so do the lives of the women who inhabit Call’s stories. Many of the women are, disappointingly, resigned to the duties of wives and mothers.
Despite its minor blunders, The Weather Stations shows incredible promise for such a young writer. In our turbulent times, these stories can be read as cautionary tales, imploring us to take heed, as our little planet continues to experience alarming bouts of ominous weather.