We Canadians like to lay our mucky little mitts on authors who make good – most recently, New Zealander Eleanor Catton, winner of the Man Booker Prize and, by dint of birth, the Governor-General’s Award. Having left the country as an infant, Galchen is even less Canadian than Catton, or that other celebrated Jewish-American author, Saul Bellow, Lachine’s famous son. But her debut collection of stories is so frightfully superb I found myself wishing she lived right next door so I could run over to borrow a cup of organic cane sugar and some of her mojo.
American Innovations has a literary genealogy traceable from U.S. short-story doyenne Ann Beattie through Lorrie Moore to Rebecca Lee (another ex-pat and heir-apparent to Moore in light of her terrific 2012 collection Bobcat and Other Stories), with traces of Aimee Bender’s dark fairy dust and Julie Hecht’s delightfully tangential and neurotic anti-heroine. Add a splash of David Foster Wallace, shake well (don’t stir), and you have a thoroughly Galchean concoction – funny, intellectual, and playfully dark.
I know, because the book jacket tells me so, that some of these stories are responses to classic works by the likes of Thurber, Borges and Gogol. In all honesty, I wouldn’t have noticed. These are narrative similarities, rather than those of style and voice, and it is style and voice that elevate these remarkably vibrant stories into something transcendent.
Stuff happens, yes: a woman’s furniture leaves her, another grows an extra breast, and a wrong-number take-out-orderer harasses yet another unravelling 21st-century gal. Stories take place in Manhattan, Key West, and Oklahoma; wedding rings are lost, science-fiction-author conferences attended, and recovering heroin addicts crushed on.
But it’s in putting words to feelings, in capturing the often unsayable, that Galchen hits it out of the park again and again. “We hadn’t always conversed in a way that sounded like advanced ESL students trying to share emotions, but recently that was happening to us.” “I felt that my love for Roy shamed my people, whoever my people were, whoever I was queen of, people I had never met, nervous people and sad people and dead people, all clambering for air and space inside me.” A lawyer specializing in toxic-mold litigation wakes up one day and thinks, “I am a fork being used to eat cereal. I am not a spoon. I am a fork. And I can’t help people eat cereal any longer.”
And here’s a woman looking back on the height of childhood queasiness during a weekly McDonald’s ritual: “Though the surface of the milk often remained pristine, I could feel the cookie’s presence down below, lurking. Like some ancient bottom-dwelling fish with both eyes on one side of its head.”
The stories can be rambling, yet profound. A number of them appear constructed of unrelated elements, but attain a feeling of complete convergence. In Dean of the Arts, set in Galchen’s childhood home of Norman, Oklahoma, the disparate elements are the discovery of a self-published book called The Collected Correspondence of Manuel Macheko, a fired professor (the purported author of said book), a high-school debating tournament and, years later, a trip to Mexico City and a close encounter with Ralph Ellison. The way Galchen delivers a scene, jumps in time, and then allows all the seemingly disparate parts to rub up against each other until a staticky resonance is achieved, is reminiscent of Alice Munro’s sleight of hand.
As in Atmospheric Disturbances, Galchen’s acclaimed debut novel, there are communications with the dead, and the possibility of other, slightly off-kilter, universes where things like time travel are scientifically possible. Or are they? In my favourite story, The Region of Unlikeness, Galchen combines an unwieldy love triangle with the speculative, resulting in a kind of mash-up of Back to the Future and Truffaut’s Jules et Jim, although rather than Jeanne Moreau’s free-spirited Catherine, the woman here is a lonely and insecure graduate student in civil engineering. The happiest days of her life begin when she meets Ilan and Jacob by chance in a Moroccan coffee shop on Upper West Side. “They were discussing Wuthering Heights too loudly, having the kind of reference-laden conversation that unfortunately never fails to attract me,” revealing everything we need to know about her and the men.
These stories made me feel alive and alert in the same way that “the girl” in The Region of Unlikeness felt so briefly with her mysterious new friends. But unlike Ilan and Jacob, the stories remain true on this and other planes of existence.
Zsuzsi Gartner is the author of story collections Better Living Through Plastic Explosives and All the Anxious Girls on Earth.