MAGICAL REALISM. Surrealism. Fantasy. Stuart Dybek has me thinking about how these words are defined in contemporary fiction. Mostly, I do this because his two new books, Paper Lantern and Ecstatic Cahoots, both collections out from Farrar Straus Giroux this June, demonstrate how masterful Dybek is at creating an impressionistic typhoon of these three schools and how little credence he lends to their categorical isolation. “It’s all one broad category to me,” he once said in an interview with Willow Springs. While this is the appropriate disposition of any salt-worthy artist, it makes reviewing Dybek’s work difficult — a scenario in which some faceless voice demands I build a house exclusively with tools I’ve never seen before. So. I report that my attempts to critically dissect Dybek’s fiction or subjugate him to one of these schools have failed, spectacularly. Yet the effects of this failure have been marvelous: for the past few months I have marveled at the bulk of my thinking that goes unobserved; I have marveled at our strange capacity to imagine things that depart from immediate experience, to “reconnect the stars in any shape,” as Dybek writes; marveled at the pillow on my couch (we’ll get to that); marveled at the suspicion that the familiar just might be my only real fantasy. I have to admit, this was a pleasant fever. Much like reading Gabriel García Márquez or Jorge Luis Borges, Dybek makes one feel enmeshed in some indescribable mass-religious delusion, but also on the verge of liberation. Accordingly, the task of what Dybek calls the “fantastical” is not to provide escape from the ordinary — but to demonstrate that nothing is ordinary.
Inevitably critics will identify that these two simultaneously released works take different forms. Paper Lantern is a collection of 10 or so traditional-length stories. Ecstatic Cahoots comprises 50 flash/mini/micro/sudden/short-short fictions that manifest, alternatively, as prose poems, exformative mood sketches, a few metafictional jokes, and the capturing of what I’ll call snow-globe moments — the intense focus on a single narrative act or mood — at which this form excels. Both collections are often set in the cultural melt of Chicago (where Dybek grew up) and share a fascination with the dynamics of intimate relationships, and in both works Dybek seems more interested in defying linear chronology and transitional logic than in merely toying with story length — this is a writer, after all, who has been experimenting with the form since his 1990 collection The Coast of Chicago, which critics have called the American Dubliners.
Gutshot with the same themes and poetic reasoning, these books explicitly refer to each other’s characters and motifs, and both are elevated by Dybek’s beautiful, oneiric prose: Car headlights in snow are “beams [which] appeared to be shooting confetti”; a “window [is] open on the scent of rain-bearded lilacs”; a long winter is time spent “in a haze of frosted-over windows, like being trapped inside a burned-out bulb.” Unruly hair is tucked “back with the unconscious self-consciousness of a girl tugging up her swimsuit”; a train shoots “through the tunnel like a memorandum through a pneumatic tube”; and a man ascends in an elevator “that climbs a glass column as silently as a fever reading in a thermometer.”
In these figurations you glimpse Dybek’s commitment to freely associated ideas and imagery, to the illogic and synesthesia of dreams, or, in Dybek’s words, our “ungovernable invention.” His allegiance to imaginative uses of narrative recalls André Breton and many other post-WWI Dadaists. Like Breton, Dybek believes that the diffuse light of consciousness illuminates only a tiny fraction of our thinking — and palely at that. The unconscious must also be deployed.
“Oceanic” is Paper Lantern’s most surrealist story. It’s a fractured narrative of two dejected lovers on a beach. Mariel, a repressive, self-described “realist,” dislikes nostalgia and holds that people are defined on a moment-to-moment basis. She claims to exalt in the “possibility of change” this perspective grants. Her lover Bryan, like the reader, notices that the tattered umbrella she brings to the beach “obviously meant something to her,” and when they accidentally leave it behind her sense of sentimental loss seemed “at odds with her avowed disregard for the past.” At twilight Mariel returns alone to the beach to retrieve it. The umbrella gets caught in the surf and in pursuing it Mariel gets repeatedly tossed in the swell. “Choking, she fought to surface against an undertow of raking hands.” Bloodied, she finally retrieves her dilapidated umbrella.
This by itself would have made for fascinating character study, but the story delves into much stranger depths, as it fragments and grows increasingly allegorical. The reader encounters a series of dreamy vignettes that seem to be happening somewhere else entirely. One gets the sense this conveys what the characters are “thinking” beneath the waterline of their awareness; the vignettes, then, are a plunge into their unconscious, or, as Dybek paradoxically writes, quoting Whitman, “the free flight into the wordless.”
In one such vignette, the child Mariel, who has no memory of her dead parents, found the attic room her “Auntie” had forbid her to visit.
She looked down to see a neon-green feather slide from beneath the blue door. When she picked it up, a basso profundo voice commanded, ‘Fan feather.’ She fanned and, as if at the beck of a conductor’s baton, the hurdy-gurdy, violin string, kettle, and grindstone played, while a whinnying, whining, caterwauling chorus rose to a crescendo. Above the din, from behind the blue door, in a fake German accent, a loosely clacking mouth shouted, ‘Fanfare! Fin Farther! Fain Fuhrer! Fond Farter! Faun Fricker!’ The shrill accompanying blasts of the lifeguard’s whistle were sure to wake Auntie.
Soon after, standing before a full-length mirror: “The girl in the mirror, though she had no feather to drop, extended her hand, but it was to wave farewell. In a voice not unlike the parakeet’s she said, ‘Find father.’”
Dybek leaves it unclear whether these memories belong to Mariel at all, as the initial broaching of her unconscious is one imagined by her lover, Bryan, and not Mariel herself. Either way, the vignette bears on Mariel’s denial: a girl with amnesia exploring an old house begins to remember her parents, who were killed during a cruise by a “rogue wave,” the truth of which gradually resolves like a repeated, ambiguous phrase — “Fanfare! Fin Farther! […] Find father.” The repression lifts, and the girl in Mariel’s “dream” remembers both her parents.
Later, Mariel stands before a Carrollian “umbrella mender,” who decides to bring his favorite umbrella to the stormy beach along with Mariel. When he explains that the umbrella will serve as more than shelter from a storm, that it contains myriad magical components, Mariel asks, “But how can all that be?”
He answers. “Why, my sweet girl, has no one ever told you, every umbrella is a big top?”
Mariel’s lesson, the one she finally uncovers, is metaphysical. The umbrella (or top, depending on your vantage) is as much defined by the elements it denies (wind, sun, time) as it is by what it protects. For much of her life, Mariel had confused her thin, feeble shelter with the thing that sought refuge to begin with. Her.
Like Proust, Dybek has a deserved reputation as a superb cartographer of memory. He has called fiction, with some reservation, a “temporal art,” and most of his canonical stories — like “Pet Milk,” “Death of the Right Fielder,” and “Paper Lantern”— are about memory, or time. Reading Dybek, especially in his recent collections, attunes you to the strangeness of memory, the dissonance embodied in the phrase “I’m having a memory,” with its implication of something that has just emerged but, in truth, has always been there.
In Dybek, a random detail will trigger an idiosyncratic association that then steers the narrative into the past. You’ll find this process, for instance, in “Paper Lantern,” the eponymous 1995 story first published in The New Yorker, which depicts a group of scientists working on a “time machine.” They return from lunch at an esoteric Chinese restaurant only to find their office building set ablaze by an unattended Bunsen burner. In fire, Dybek finds his truest catalyst for the emergence and passage of a memory. While his life’s work burns in the building before him, the narrator recalls setting fires as kid, then remembers a photograph of a woman standing before another enormous fire, then he thinks of the night he took that picture, a joyride of peril and sex, when the couple’s foreplay is interrupted, surreally, by a crazed trucker who pursues them until they escape to a secluded roadside. He returns to the story’s “present” only after the powerful memory resolves its tension and its imagery begins to cool, calm, and darken (“Sitting silently in the dark, we listen to the crinkle of the cooling engine”), as though some conflagrant dimension had been burned off.
And that’s how, I think, Dybek essentially understands memories, as their own experiential dimensions. Each has its own irreducible imagery, its own color and mood and logic. This generalization is brilliantly dramatized in “A Confluence of Doors,” in which a nameless castaway finds an array of abutting doors floating on the open ocean. Desperate, curious, he moors his raft and walks atop the doors, some of which have “peepholes, some have mail slots, some have numbers, foot plates, locks, doorknobs of brass, wrought iron, glass, and some have only puttied holes where the doorknobs are missing.” He tries to ignore a slight knocking sound but it seems to respond to his presence and becomes louder, more insistent. Frantically, he attempts to open one, to answer and hopefully quell the knocking, but each door is locked; he instead has an “odd flash of memory” wherein his younger brother would slam furiously on the doors he had teasingly locked when they were kids. The cacophony becomes too terrible to bear and the castaway again sets himself adrift, but not before he considers that “he might lean his ear to each door and hear its story, listen to the voices muffled behind it, the singing or laughter or cursing or weeping, and perhaps he would recognize voices, so that it would seem as if he were walking down a long corridor lined with all the doors of his life.” A memory, for Dybek, is literally another world, and when he submits to its peculiar and supreme gravity, he is at his most fantastic. In Dybek the conscious mind receives the past in discrete order, through one portal at a time, while the unknowable ocean roils below.
You may recall me mentioning the pillow on my couch. I’d like to discuss it. I often read Dybek on this couch. At some point I peered over my book to notice the pillow beside my feet. I thought I knew this pillow: gray, inconsistently stuffed, and scratchy, hence its position at my feet and not behind my head. If you had previously asked me to describe the pattern of this pillow (which turns out to be a patchwork of variously shaded diamonds that appear to be sutured together), I would have fallen silent. I had a weird abstraction of the pillow but had never noticed exactly what it looked like. I had grown so familiar with it that I'd stopped looking at it, stopped discovering it. This made me wonder, exactly, what other mysteries I had habitually overlooked.
As soon as I discovered the pillow’s pattern it became re-assimilated in my mind, a new familiar concept that excluded some other reality. I went back, looked again. I noticed the contours of its shadows, how it had only one double seam along its bottom, the accusatory spine it formed on its pointed corners — three more things I'd never noticed. I spent a while doing this, trying to exhaust the possibilities. My nerves went skittering. Probably there exists an infinity of novel observations I could make about such an object. And that’s the terror and marvel of it: that the entire world is like this — alien. I could make such observations of any and all objects, animals, feelings, sensations, people, but the sum of the experience, however sacred, would be too intoxicating to handle. I mean, we were just talking pillows here.
Dybek understands that reality gets constructed rapidly and mostly unconsciously. “Things happen in slivers too tiny to notice until they suddenly add up and you’re amazed you been living in their shadow,” a character observes. Magic, which is by definition inexplicable, resists this accumulation, and like a squealing gasket or slipping gear, calls attention to the surrounding machinery. How are we to make sense of the “phantasmal reflection of the surprised woman” seen by a firing squad, the mysterious marks a woman finds on her buttocks, the miniature bride and groom that visit a boy, the ant that lifts and moves the man lost in memory, the macabre images a couple sees beneath the frozen plane of a lake? We’re not. Though convincingly incorporated into the narrative, none of these events are meant to be accepted as reality. Another character — in a story fittingly entitled “Fiction”— rejects the “suspension of disbelief” for a “suspension of common sense.” These magical images haunt the reader, yes, like a ghost — one of the most common nouns in both books — and like most apparitions that characters encounter, they are not there to provide salvation, but to instruct, to illuminate something overlooked.
When people talk in Dybek’s stories they ritually confuse each other’s meanings, or internalize things in a way the signifier had not intended, or say things that reveal their profound ignorance of each other. The title Ecstatic Cahoots comes from a beautifully perplexing little exchange between Nick Carraway and Jay Gatsby, where it becomes impossible to tell if either understands the other.
Characters in these books are more often lovers than strangers, and their confusions can be comical. A couple in the story “Naked” disrobes and begin asking each other what items they plan to leave on. “You’re going to leave your watch on?” is portentously answered by “You’re leaving on your cross?” The line of questioning proceeds to his “Old Spice,” to her “mascara” and “gypsy earrings,” then, jokingly, to her “concealed weapon” and the “wire” he’s wearing. On and on, until she asks him, in all seriousness, to remove his “Groucho” mask, and he responds, “My love, what Groucho?”
This is a funny, if not cartoonish, account of a special jamais vu, a sudden defamiliarization with someone you thought you knew. But you can sense the ache of bewilderment, even here, as these characters are rediscovering each other in a literally superficial way. How deep does their ignorance extend? The lifeguard in “The Kiss,” after resuscitating a girl who attempted to drown herself (a scenario to which Dybek obsessively returns) is crestfallen when he realizes that she will not “remember the mouth on hers that brought her back, or his breath searching for her through the darkened corridors of her body.” Everything he knows and in some way cherishes about her — all that makes her familiar to him — she will never experience or comprehend. And so she “leaves without so much as a thank you, or a wave goodbye.”
In “Four Deuces,” it takes a woman a full and miserable year to understand that her new prosperity is probably due to her husband murdering his friend. She confesses what she suspects to a priest, then to her husband, then, drunkenly, to an “angel” named Raphael (cleverly, the Abrahamic archangel of healing), and yet never seems to accept the truth herself. Her sexual fantasy of being violently whipped, punished, attests to this. Universally, in Dybek, if his characters are ignorant of others they are in some symmetrical way ignorant of themselves. This is, I would think, Dybek’s “private joke,” the ecstatic cahoots of human affairs: I don’t know you and you don’t know me but I don’t know me and you don’t know you and that’s what we know about each other!
At the peak of their ebullience, Dybek’s characters seek to illuminate this crosscut nescience and heighten its effect. A curious story, “Dark Ages,” finds two lovers in a foreign town at which they’ve accidentally arrived. With the locals asleep, the two wander through the streets, kiss, play in a fountain with iconic stone nymphs, and wonder why they traveled here. “Maybe we needed to feel foreign,” the woman says, “to find a place where there’s no way to be anything but strangers.”
The man responds. “Have you ever had the feeling that you’ve become a stranger to yourself?”
She says, “Could be a step in the right direction.”
They retreat to their hotel and make love on the sill of an open window, “both of them lost in billowing white curtains, while she repeated, Don’t stop, and he’d wondered what dream she’d awakened from and if she, too, had lain in the dark thinking that they have to keep fucking because they are afraid of where they might find themselves if they stop.” This fear, a kind of existential beckoning, is the first inkling that Dybek understands that the quest for the unfamiliar can become its own escapism.
I think it’s this frantic departure from familiar reality that makes the suffering of Dybek’s characters so exceptional and unrecognizable. Their consciousness rarely stays in one place long enough for despair or anguish to actualize. In the story “Tosca,” a man faces his death before a firing squad: “Each soldier taking aim imagines that beneath the hood the condemned man is flashing through his memory. It’s a way in which the senses flee the body, a flight into the only dimension where escape is still possible: time.” Even if characters are permitted to hurt, they do so in ways that repel readerly empathy, their pain shrouded in personal colors and symbolism, backlit by the glimmering reassurance of escape into that sacred fever, the one the lovers in “Dark Ages” fear abandoning. The man in that story imagines that the town awakens to find them having sex before the open window, believing that their nymphean deities have returned to them. “But the nymphs are in no hurry for a reunion with mankind. They continue to bathe, staring off, detached from mortal life, unconcerned even as the fissured walls collapse and the torrents flood the streets.”
The thing about “mortal life,” though, is that nothing makes it seem realer, more unmistakable, more exquisitely urgent, than suffering, nothing screams this is really happening to you! more sharply than pain. A child who has burned his hand is likely imagining a world in which his hand is not throbbing and his nerves are not igniting and he is not crying; his suffering spawns in the rift between those two visions. Great, tectonic, moving fiction engages both illusion and ultimate reality, like Plato’s enlightened prisoner returning to the cave. Dybek’s fantastical category can shatter our hubristic “reality” by revealing the world as marvelously alien and eternally mysterious — a worthwhile spiritual project — but it refuses to reconstitute it. If the characters in “Dark Ages” endlessly follow their need to feel foreign then they will never find home. Truly, this kind of storytelling can provide an escape; not an escape from the real, as is commonly thought, but a real escape.