A collection of ten short stories.
The strongest story in this collection is the first story, ‘William Wei’. Ms. Barrodale has said in an interview that it is her favorite, and I discover that it won the Plimpton Prize for Fiction. It is very well written. Every sentence is strong. The movement of the viewpoint character through the story flows well and carries the reader along.
Apparently this was originally intended as the beginning of a novel, but was reworked into a short story. Another selection from this collection, ‘Catholic’, is said to be another section from the unfinished novel, this time with a female narrator, presumably the woman from ‘William Wei’, the section again reworked into a short story that stands alone. Perhaps not coincidentally, this story is another of the strongest from the collection.
‘Catholic’ like ‘William Wei’ has crisp, believable dialogue, interesting character interactions, scenes that are short or long exactly as needed. Another author strength, very in evidence in ‘Catholic’, is moving across long stretches of time very smoothly, picking up the action at just the correct moment.
My overall reaction to this collection is the same as to most collections: I enjoy sections of skillfully written dialogue and description, a vivid scene here and there, paragraphs where the writing shines. In between these moments I find myself wanting to skim, losing interest in the plots or the characters. This is one of the better collections I have read.
A third story that held my interest all the way through was ‘The Imp’. Since all the other stories remain in a basically realist mode, I feel that the Imp present in this tale, though presented as an occult being, is in fact a metaphor for the husband’s uncertain mental state and propensity towards paranoia and violence. In other words, it represents the monster inside him, or rather the monster he is.
The story ‘Animals’, about the actress and the odd director, involves the making of a film titled ‘The Imp’, which is also the title of the third story. A line of interpretation could be followed from here, linking the two stories thematically, but I won’t go in that direction in this post. ‘The Animals’ has some very good dialogue, but I felt the preamble to the film shoot and then the movie sequences themselves went on too long.
‘The Sew Man’ has a nice ending but is too much like a long story for a single punchline. ‘Frank Advice for Fat Women’, is much the same, a comic story that has too many details before the payoff.
‘Night Report’ opens very well, but I was hoping to have a more literature orientated story, teased into this expectation by the main character’s discovery of a little known author. Though amusing, I began to lose patience with the retreat sections, though there is a very clever twist which I enjoyed, but wish had amounted to even more.
‘The Commission’ is a sort of an encounter between an eccentric customer and a sales manager at a very chic store. They almost, but not quite are able to make a connection, a connection of understanding, if not empathy. Not much happens, but it is that quality of raising the mundane to art through good writing, knowing just how long to sustain a scene before moving on, that showcases Ms. Barrodale’s writing at its best.
‘Mynahs’ did not hold my interest. It began well, but could not sustain my attention. The ending was interesting, but unlike the best of this collection the dialogue and scene construction seemed ordinary.
‘Rinpoche’ ends the collection. There were moments of scene and dialogue I enjoyed, but I felt this story was too long for the content. But it does end on an uplifting note that one could take as the theme for the collection, as perhaps it is meant.