The Architect of Flowers: Stories
(Mariner Books, 2011)
The raw, emotional narrative voice that runs throughout William Lychack’s book of short stories keeps readers on edge. While there are a myriad of different perspectives—a hybridizer and his paranoid wife, a police officer, a ghostwriter, a school teacher with mythic origins—the narrative voice feels continuous. An almost palpable discontent unites all the characters and is the beating heart of their stories. One main source of discontent is loneliness, a recurring theme in the perspectives of married women throughout the book—alone at home while the husband works or aching to see a grown son who has moved far away. Lychack’s beautiful imagery enhances the intensity of his characters’ emotions, for instance in the eponymous chapter, “She longed for these things to fall like truncheons on her body, yearned for the worst to simply happen, her heart going like a bird in her chest at times. And not a small bird either, her heart like a pigeon or a crow, its wings trying to open inside the cage of her ribs.” These powerful yearnings prepare the reader for an act of desperation, which turns out to be both humorous and unsettling.
The sense of loneliness is heightened by the book’s focus on internal development; the pieces are not dialogue intensive. And in focusing primarily on the internal, some of the pieces are almost ethereal. Lychack omits definite and indefinite articles and strings phrases together—jumping from thought to thought—to create a feeling of being only loosely tethered to reality. A police officer’s perspective begins in this way: “Was toward the end of your shift, a Saturday, another one of those long slow lazy afternoons of summer—sun never burning through the clouds, clouds never breaking into rain—odometer like a clock ticking all those bored little pent-up streets and mills and tenements away.”
Lychack’s characters seem so very human in exposing their desires—ones that so often have negative connotations. He has plunged us into their very hearts, as though searching the core of their being to reveal what it means to be human. And this seems to be Lychack’s point about being human, as one of his characters says, “What are we but these urges? What else carries us through our lives, gives us meaning, helps us make sense of the accidents that befall us? And when I think of it like this, I actually feel—or believe—that the best in us is utterly mad.” The narrative voice is maddening at times, particularly in the first chapter’s second-person perspective, but to good effect. Lychack’s collection of stories drives readers with its discontent and leaves them, while a bit unsettled, with a gut-wrenching exploration of longing.