Monday, January 18, 2010

#3: Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It

Maile Meloy's 2009 short story collection, Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It, is, on the surface, a teeming, raging vat of tension. Much of the time, this tension is overtly sexual; elsewhere it manifests itself in, say, "a smile that gave Aaron a twinge of jealousy" (a line from "Spy vs. Spy," a story chronicling, among other things, a fraternal grudge match). The author's eleven narratives, in their entirety, take place within cocoons of solitude, but of the kind that can -- and do -- occur in a crowded nuclear plant as easily as at a lonely lakeside campfire. Strangely, the characters in these stories, as many reviewers have already noted, never seem to have clear ideas of what they're looking for, or what should come after the Right Now. This way sounds good, but so does that one. In other words, both ways is really, truly the only way they want it.

When dealing with something as disconcerting and yet as fundamental to the human experience as loneliness, authors frequently take one of two paths. They either become the protagonist's apologist, explaining in undue detail the reasoning and emotions animating his actions in an effort to woo the reader's sympathy, or they write with callousness, an almost academic detachment. Maile Meloy dips her toes into both practices without fully embracing either. In "Nine," for example, the story is told in the third person but from a child's perspective. At times the visceral pain felt by the girl's mother is related casually, as in: "Valentine and her mother shared a room with two single beds, where Gwen sometimes cried without warning. There were sweat pea blossoms from the garden on the night table. They all went for a hike to a clear, cold lake. Then they said goodbye." Elsewhere, the author allows her creations moments of utter vulnerability: "The thought that she would never see Jake again -- not in the same way --  made her sadder than the ruined garden or the missing things."

Unsurprisingly, there is a lot of infidelity going on here too: in the distant past, in the same time frame as the story, as something looked forward to in the very near future with dread determinism. But this unfaithfulness is not simply a sin visited by one wretched soul upon another; it's just as often a betrayal of oneself. "Now he had settled back into the habit of his marriage...," Meloy writes of a man agonizing over whether to leave his wife for another woman. "He tried to determine if he was paralyzed with indecision or only mired in comfort." It takes a gifted (not to mention generous and perhaps morally suspect) writer to empathize with a man's struggle to be true to himself when that truth takes the form of a younger woman.

The quirky thing about these stories is that, notwithstanding the hovering cloud of depression and gloom that will inevitably follow their reading, one can't quite evade the sense that these characters are real, that it might be pleasant to meet some of them, that it may help to re-read some of the stories to gain some added insights. I'm not sure I'm ready to let all these lonely people disappear between the pages just yet.

At the conclusion of "Spy vs. Spy," a middle-aged man muses on the strenuous skiing expedition he's just taken with his elder brother. "We should do this next year," he says. "We should do this every year." He may have been referring to skiing, but I like to think he secretly meant reading Meloy's book.

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