Johanna Skibsrud's second fiction offering, following her Scotiabank Giller prize-winning novel The Sentimentalists, is a slim volume of short fictions that describe the elliptical passage of time, the often existential erasure of self and the chasm between language and meaning.
In The Electric Man, a young server working at the Auberge DesJardins encounters an ex-circus performer whose scars deride her own existential angst. In The Limit, a father breaches the emotional gap between himself and his estranged teenage daughter by getting her to drive his car across the stark South Dakota landscape. In the title story, an adult set of siblings tries to untangle events during an SS visit to their home and make sense of the lasting imprint of this singular tragic event. In Signac's Boats, the narrator muses on pixilation, love and limitations, while in Cleats, a wife and mother extracts herself from her marriage and her ordered life in exchange for her dubious yet much yearned-for freedom.
These stories have promising setups, and compelling premises, with the intention of exploring the nature of alienation and isolation and the manner in which both – ironically – bring human beings together while cleaving them apart. By casting her characters as foreigners, estranged from their loved ones or separated either emotionally, geographically or psychologically from each other, Skibsrud creates perfect little fictional Petri dishes within which to explore said themes. However, since her stories are neither character-nor plot-driven, but rather designed for the purpose of philosophical contemplation, it is difficult to analyze these stories in standard literary terms; Skibsrud approaches prose through a distilled poetic sensibility as these stories focus on transformative abstractions.
A poetic approach makes sense; as William Boyd notes in his essay on short fiction, the short story form, in fact, shares much with the poetic in that it “does its work with ruthless brevity and concentrated dispatch.” By this logic, then, the poet should make an easy and fruitful transition to the shorter structure, given that the poet's strength lies in her measured control of language, not to mention the deliberate and thoughtful conveyance of ideas and themes.
Odd then, to find a lack of control, imagery and clean and precise language in this collection. As the reader stumbles repeatedly over cumbersome sentences, littered with unclear antecedents, abstractions, in a tangle of deliberate obfuscation, it is hard not to think that the title of the collection echoes the author's decision to confine characters to live – almost exclusively – inside their heads.
In other words, in these stories there is much thinking about thinking, thinking about space, memory or time, with rambling sentences that lack clarity. For example, a character expresses her guilt over abandoning her daughter in Cleats: “It really was such a shame, the way you could be so careful, and for so long, and then go ahead and undo it all in the end, as though nothing had ever been held together by anything at all.”
Of course, there are different schools and types of writing; some writers simply want to provide the reader with story while balancing “self-expression and communication within a group,” as Jonathan Franzen notes. Other writers, like Skibsrud, are concerned with making sapient connections and cerebral pursuits. Franzen refers to the second model as the Status model, celebrated by Flaubert, which confers upon itself “a discourse of genius and art-historical importance.”
From the Roland Barthes quote at the start of a story titled French Lessons, to the extended analysis of neo-impressionist painter Paul Signac in Signac's Boats, the reader is quickly clued in to the fact that Johanna Skibsrud comes at prose through the headiness of the intellectual, rather than the frank opacity of a storyteller.
Ibi Kaslik is the author of Skinny and The Angel Riots.