A collection of short stories centered on the complications of love and the disorientation of grief.
Chehak (It’s Not About the Dog: Stories, 2015, etc.) isn’t cowed by the notion of tackling the most exigent existential issues in this assemblage of 16 tales, all but one previously published, mostly in literary magazines such as The Minnesota Review. Many of them confront the pain of loss. For example, in the first, titular piece, Nessa Lowe, a 60-year-old woman, struggles to get her bearings after her longtime husband abandons her for a younger woman—a fate that’s no less humiliating for being clichéd. Nessa contributes to her own solitude by alienating her other family members, as she’s an ungovernable alcoholic, inclined to mercurial acts of violence. Similarly, in “Helium,” Maudie’s spiritual desolation after the death of her husband reduces her to finding companionship in an artificial boy fashioned from balloons. As is characteristic of Chehak’s writing, the story manages to seamlessly weave despair with morbidly outlandish humor, as characters use the latter as a means to negotiate the former. In “Idiot,” a story that’s less than a page in length, an unnamed protagonist returns to her ex-boyfriend’s place to retrieve a pair of shoes only to hurl them into a lagoon shortly after—an act of self-redemption following a self-betraying submission. The author seems keen on flouting conventions; the story structures aren’t always linear, and many of them feel more like quick, impressionistic portraits of emotional states than they do literary chronicles of events. The concluding piece, “That is This: Resurrection,” resembles narrative verse with its series of short questions and declarative statements: “Is she dead? She is dead.”
Chehak’s prose offers an impressive variety of styles, ranging from long, cascading sentences to linguistic parsimony, from short snapshots to longer, more plot-driven narratives. She has a talent for packing a lifetime of retrospection into one or two sentences, such as these, from “Coxswain”: “We ran through the streets, chanting for justice and an end to the war and peace on earth and love and he held my hand and I threw the rock that smashed the sign. There was darkness then and he kissed me then, he shattered me like glass.” Most of the pieces in this book are driven by character, and even the unnamed figures in them are powerfully drawn, if enigmatic. In “Suffer the Children: Four Quartets,” for instance, readers don’t know much information about Ellen—a woman in search of a new home, away from her mother—or about Mrs. Norton, the grifter posing as a house seller, but the mad desperation of both women is palpable. The author also sensitively juxtaposes personal anxiety with its global iteration; in “Apocalypse, Tonight,” the unnamed protagonist—her anonymity conspicuous in a story brimming with named characters—makes elaborate preparations for a New Year’s Eve party that could possibly include a Y2K catastrophe, but lurking in the background is the impending death of her father.
A poignant assortment of stylistically daring stories.