I Hold a Wolf by the Ears
Laura van den Berg stories can be described as chilling and unearthly. They aren’t afraid to poke a nerve. She writes about women who live in hard and deceitful worlds, either looking for something or running away from another. The environments, often based in Florida, are as mysterious as the characters themselves, mixing surrealism with the ordinary, producing these magical, mind-bending universes that are, surprisingly, not always a stretch from our own.
The author’s latest short story collection, I Hold a Wolf by the Ears, focuses on women trying to cope with whatever life brings them, which is usually something traumatic, sexist, and violent. They are all haunted by ghosts plagued by society, something van den Berg wanted to explore after the 2016 election. In the leaflet included in her galley, she expresses becoming “increasingly attuned to forces that haunt our contemporary moment from sexual assault to the harrowing realities of the gig economy to gun violence” which propped her desire to uncover the “complexity of white women in upholding patriarchal violence.”
The title of the collection “speaks to the challenges of navigating messy situations with no clear solution,” van den Berg says. There are no “soft landings for these characters,” but there is humor trickled within these nightmarish tales and at times, flares of hope. “New paths do open,” van den Berg says, “suggesting the possibility of a way through.”
Women are studied throughout van den Berg’s work. In The Isle of Youth (2013), the stories center young women surviving hardships stemmed by lifestyle choices and carving a stony path to self-discovery. In her novel, The Third Hotel, (2019 New York Public Library Young Lions Fiction Award finalist), a widow travels to Cuba searching for answers to her husband’s death and meaning to their relationship only to find him there, seemingly alive or maybe only in her head, sending her on a mystifying pursuit into discovering herself and the role in her marriage.
Van den Berg’s work has offered her a long list of honors, including the Pushcart Prize, Bard Fiction Prize, and O. Henry Award, with many of her books deemed as “Best Book” of that given year from outlets that include NPR—a far cry from the 18-year-old who was close to failing college, seeking out a fiction workshop only for “an easy A.” Her appreciation for the short story came after reading one by Amy Hempel for class, allowing her to “find a way through” becoming a reader first then a writer.
The women in van den Berg’s stories are unreliable but not unlikeable. They think one way and act another. They contradict themselves repeatedly and are mesmerizing for it. Her latest book proves this well, including “Last Night,” the first of the story collection, centering around a woman released from a mental institution with opening lines that are as puzzling as they are intriguing: “I want to tell you about the night I got hit by a train and died. The thing is—it never happened.” The night before she is released from the institution, she breaks free with two of her friends and goes to the tracks where she imagines the train kills them all in efforts to free the past so the future can live. Only she isn’t really hit by the train and her friends aren’t really there. They are merely ghosts or hallucinations. Her sanity might be questioned but there is some truth to her rationale. Sometimes you need to let go of the past to allow the future in.
Van den Berg is good at creating these strange, relatable worlds with the use of her language. She crafts long, ornate sentences that drift in rich detail, counterbalancing with short fragments, quick jabs to a thought. “A dare, a climb, a fall.” Simple but cutting. In the story, “Slumberland,” a woman photographer escapes her noisy apartment by going around the neighborhood to capture photos of residents. Van den Berg describes the scenes so beautifully that it’s hard not to consider an invasion of privacy as something more exotic, something as glamorous as what’s seen through the photographers’ own eyes: “With my camera I got her pointed feet just before she disappeared through the window, two pale fish arcing out of the sea.”
There are many themes in this book of stories that are similar to her previous work, such as grief and loss, trauma, and self-reflection. Death, in particular, plays a major role in most of her books, including the most current. Someone either dwells on the probability of their own death or the death of someone close to them. Death of relationships are also important. In the story called, “Karolina” we meet two women struggling to overcome their failed relationships. Karolina went missing after her divorce and spends her nights in the park, now homeless. The other woman, unnamed and the ex sister-in-law to Karolina, is also divorced but grieving only for the love of a friend whom she will never have. Karolina, who oftentimes seems disturbed and aloof for good reason, is profoundly in tune when she confesses, “Love is suffering.” These characters, like the rest in this collection, are all suffering from some sort of past love or a love that can never be. It is something, like many of van den Berg’s themes and ghosts, most of us, if not all, can certainly relate to.