Most of the individuals in these austerely written stories by Swiss novelist Stamm (Unformed Landscape, 2005, etc.) lead humdrum but desperate lives.
To read all 20, assembled from two volumes of stories published separately in German, is to visit a literary purgatory where a throng of dispirited characters cling to a comfortless bare rock of prose. His characters, whether Swiss or Costa Rican, visiting New York or working in London, share a world culture of Alec Guinness, Tracy Chapman, Walt Whitman and Star Trek that does nothing to bring them closer together. Many of these stories involve love that fails or a despairing plea for help or solace that goes unanswered. In “Like a Child, Like an Angel,” a wealthy Swiss accountant never responds to a letter from a poor colleague who needs an expensive medicine for his wife. In “The Wall of Fire,” an exploited outcast working for a carnival puts himself at risk to impress a girl to whom he means almost nothing. The narrator of “What We Can Do” rebuffs the embarrassed advances of a sad office mate to whom their mutual colleagues have given the cruel gift of a vibrator. “Black Ice” is perhaps the bleakest: Larissa, a young mother dying of a resistant strain of tuberculosis tells “everything she had thought in the last few months” to a journalist because no one else—not even her husband—has visited her for months. The misery radiates to the smallest details. Larissa mentions a neighbor with a broken TV “who keeps switching it on anyway and staring at the black screen.” In Stamm’s world, when three young friends laugh and sunbathe on a station platform, they do so only until a train pulls up to unload the corpse of a suppliant who has died on the way to Lourdes.
While Stamm doesn't discount the possibility of happiness and comradeship, there is invariably an ounce of joy for every pound of gloom.