NOVEMBER 29, 2017
IN FOX SEASON: AND OTHER SHORT STORIES, her debut collection, Agnieszka Dale exhibits a knack for opening lines. They are sometimes titillating: “For sex with Manolo, Bianca went to the Vatican Gardens” (“One Less Button”); sometimes scatological: “Shit came by the house, unannounced, like a bomb” (“A Shit Story”); and sometimes troubling: “It was Christmas, which should have made it easier to do the killing” (“The Christmas Pig”). The best, such as that from the wonderfully captivating story “Hello Poland,” combine character, imagery, and conflict in one tightly worded package: “On the way up the escalator, a Warsaw escalator, breathing Warsaw air, Jan sees women’s buttocks.” In that one sentence, we not only get a sense that Jan is slightly overwhelmed by his surroundings, but also a sense of his personal drivers. And yet, despite the narrator’s repeated references to his healthy libido, Jan is not entirely lecherous. The story, like so many in this collection, is more serious than it first appears.
Besides studying the posteriors of the women around him, Jan studies their faces. He has returned to his homeland after a lengthy absence, hoping to find his daughter, Poland, who went missing when she was still a child:
He wants to see her, he wants to find her, now. But there are only women here, just women. He imagines women as girls. Each woman as a girl in a pink coat. A girl called Poland. Like a country. A lost country, his lost girl.
In those few lines we start to develop what will be, by the end of the story, a deep sympathy for Jan, who has been exiled for half his life, yearning for the daughter he left behind.
Very quickly, though, we begin to question what Jan’s reality is, for what at first seems familiar territory — our reality — quickly begins to reshape itself into something altogether more unsettling. We learn that Jan, who has been exiled since the final days of General Jaruzelski’s rule in the 1980s, is 180 years old. With that one discovery, tensions begin to rise.
Returning home after many years’ absence, Jan views the changes that have taken place with a stranger’s eye. This new Warsaw is far cleaner than he remembers and, thanks to the User Experience regime that governs every aspect of life, it is far safer, too. With added vitamins and amino acids, even the cigarettes are healthy. Of course, we soon come to feel that this seemingly benign regime, where every action is user-tested and -retested, and every reaction is analyzed, is every bit as authoritarian as Jaruzelski’s. Something dark seems to lurk beneath the shiny surface.
Jan’s anxiety, too, is made palpable as he considers what fate might have befallen his daughter. By fleeing across the border into exile, he has failed to protect her these long years. The guilt and the longing have never left him:
God, this feeling again, of panic, of anger, in his stomach and then deeper than the stomach, the black hole inside his stomach. The endless universe of his stomach which can’t get tense, it just can’t, because his stomach is not an organ anymore, it’s just this vast emptiness, with his daughter inside, like he’s devoured her over the past decades, with his endless worry about her, her absence, or her undefined presence, somewhere. His daughter is now this little stone, it seems, rotating in his stomach, around the orbit of the stomach’s lining. He always feels her.
Jan is not the only character in Fox Season to be troubled by deep angst. In fact, if there is one overriding sense that fills the pages of this book, it is this. Anxiety washes over Dale’s characters like a tsunami. There is anxiety of the domestic kind, concerning children and parents and partners; anxiety about war and the possibility of war; anxiety about immigrants; and anxiety about deportation. Dale, whose formative years spanned Poland’s transition from communism under General Jaruzelski to democracy with Lech Wałęsa, immigrated to Britain in 2003, shortly before Poland joined the European Union. As both a Polish national during those turbulent early years and a Polish immigrant during these, it comes as no surprise that her art is one of tension. She has passed on her own little worry stones to her characters.
In “A Happy Nation,” written as a first-person monologue, a Polish immigrant to Britain receives a late-night visit from an immigration officer. The narrator addresses the officer with wry humor and quickly turns the tables, interrogating him much more effectively than he interrogates her. While her voice remains subdued, however, her concerns are clear. Again, the opening lines deftly hint at the narrator’s fears and at a larger, unspoken story: “I don’t believe this is an emergency for Great Britain, officer. It’s just a crisis, you know, a little crisis. […] It’s just an inconvenience.”
“A Happy Nation” is a response to Brexit, Britain’s decision to take control of its borders and leave the EU, which has left many European immigrants feeling insecure about their future. The unnamed narrator has lived in Britain for many years. She is married to a Brit, and her children are also British. By all accounts, she is fully assimilated and could easily, if she put on the accent, pass for British herself. But it is this ability to “pass,” she deduces, that is the real problem. “You can no longer tell me from the Others,” she challenges the officer, adding, “I could be White Other, or I could just be white.”
Along with the standard categories of “White” listed on job applications and census forms in the United Kingdom (English/Welsh/Northern Irish/Scottish), there is a tick box labelled “any other White background,” often shortened to “White Other.” It’s a box that seems specifically designed to minoritize those who choose it and to engender feelings of displacement. Like the United States, though, Britain has always been a nation of immigrants. As well as immigrants from former colonies, predominantly people of color, the country has had immigration from Europe for over a thousand years. By the second generation, it is almost impossible to distinguish these paler-hued immigrants from “indigenous Brits.” Having found the true reason for the nation’s concern, the narrator continues probing the officer:
[W]hat if I am actually a little better than you? Not much, just a little. A little cleverer. Funnier. Prettier. More organised. Not much. Just that tiny bit. Yes, it must feel like I am keeping you on your toes.
If immigrants prove to be “that tiny bit” cleverer — as is often the case — then the natives would be forced to up their game, “to become greater than great,” or risk being superseded.
By the end of the story, the narrator’s anxiety has gotten the better of her. She has talked almost non-stop, as nervous people often do, but now she is reconsidering her position. She has spotted the gun, poorly concealed beneath the immigration officer’s coat — which is, in turn, a sign of his anxiety, and also that of the nation. In an ironic twist, she recognizes the Slavic origins of the officer’s name, and sees that he has become White British, a status that he is willing to protect.
At barely a page in length, “What We Should Feel Now” is by far the shortest story in the collection, but the unease it exudes is not lessened by its brevity.
“Do you not like me here?” I ask the shopkeepers, doctors, policemen, politicians, and friends.
“Of course, don’t be silly. We love you. You are like us, you are part of us, you know. Always have. Always will.”
But the narrator, anxious to be accepted, is not so sure people are telling her the truth, imploring them to “[t]ell me how I’m like you.”
As in most of stories in this collection, there is a deep uncertainty about the future here, shown through others’ attempts to reassure the narrator she is welcome, and by the narrator’s claims that she is impervious to some unstated but troubling incident that has happened before the story begins: “We don’t feel love right now, but we shake hands. We’ll get through this, you say. We’ll just get on with it. I say it too.”
The stories in this impressive debut collection are often quite odd — generally in a good way — with peculiar and perplexing endings that demand a second reading. At times, they are both humorous and poignant; at others, as wars and rumors of wars ride the darker undercurrents, they seem disturbingly portentous. Dale’s perspective as an “Other” allows her to depict her adopted home in vivid and unfamiliar ways. It is, above all, the anxiety she expresses about our shared future that makes the biggest impact on the reader and keeps her stories — which begin so strikingly — alive beyond their final lines.
Loree L. Westron is an American writer, educator, and reviewer, living on the south coast of the United Kingdom. Her work has appeared in publications including The London Magazine, Western American Literature, and Short Fiction in Theory and Practice.