I first talked about Vanishing and Other Stories, the debut collection of Deborah Willis, in this post: “It is, well, about vanishing. About disappearances. About someone leaving. About someone staying, and waiting. About the absent one, and how this presence constantly and continuously haunts the one who’s stayed.”
“The stories have this thematic clutch,” I wrote then, and connected that theme to a quote from Roland Barthes [which can be found in the same post]: …it is the other who leaves, it is I who remain. … it is to say: “I am loved less than I love.”
Then, I’d only read half of the stories. Having finished the collection, I stand by those words. The people in the stories of Deborah Willis are, at one point are another, experiencing loss. There are different kinds of loss, the collection posits, and Willis — her matter-of-fact storytelling, her controlled prose — takes us by the hand through as many of them as possible. Oh, that language. So simple, so effective:
He smiled the kind of smile people use to cover up anger, or simple heartache. The kind of smile that never quite succeeds.
In “Vanishing,” a local writer disappears, a playwright. And his disappearance reverberates throughout the lives of the people he left behind. Especially his daughter Tabitha.
Anything could have happened. Maybe he turned into a shop and fell in love with the beautiful clerk. Maybe he stepped off the Bloor Viaduct. She imagined his body buried under snow. She imagined it would turn up in spring.
I found the treatment of time very impressive — the choice flashbacks and the jumps forward in time. Devices that, in the story, sought to reveal, but eventually questioned whether or not we really knew who we loved. This story, like many others in the collection, leaves us with more questions than it poses. Yay.
I like ambiguity. Strangely enough, I’ve found so little of it in the contemporary stories I’ve been reading: people seem intent on going post-post-modern on everything their narrative eye touches. It’s refreshing, oddly enough, to find something conventional in your hands. Conventional — Not necessarily a bad thing, as one professor put it. Backhanded compliment as any, but I really really missed this. It’s back-to-basics storytelling. I don’t get enough of that.
The more you read of the stories, that thematic clutch appears. In “Escape,” our narrator’s wife has died, and for a long time, he wanders, aimless, trying to fill the hole that disappearance caused — or rather, what it can’t:
He’d expected grief to be engulfing. He’d hoped that she wouldn’t vanish so quickly. He’d hoped that she would haunt him.
He develops a gambling habit, as well as a fascination for the carddealer who used to be a traveling magician — We wonder if it’s all in the name of exploration. We wonder if it’s all in the name of grief.
“Why do people see magic shows?” He asks her this after she has torn a twenty-dollar bill in half and magically restored it. What he really wants to ask is this: Why do people touch each other? Why do they fall in love?
And that clutch goes on, story after story. This is a collection that would be kind to those who don’t want too much disparateness in their stories. However. The danger in a thematic collection is that, at a certain point, the reader is simply looking for how the author plays on the variations. Because on a lazy writer, a handful of stories can be just that: variations on a theme. Because if it stops at mere variation, the more of the stories you read, the higher your expectations get. A collection like that, it’s biggest weakness is not living up to the expectations it set up.
Don’t get me wrong: Willis missteps a couple of times. Some stories were meh. Some stories were just so disturbing in a way that has me sighing at the fate of humanity in general. Some stories were, again, meh.
But Willis knows where her strengths lie. And so when a story hits the spot for me, it’s nothing short of brilliant. Her language is already an asset. But, oh, the form!
Two of my favorite stories has Willis taking advantage of the structure of the story. It’s “Caught” that has me giddy. I can’t explain how Willis played with the storytelling — the narrative itself. Making a statement, constructing a scene. Then saying, “No, that’s not how it happened,” and proposing another scene. Over and over. It made me envious. That was a story I wish I had written.
“Traces,” is a wife addressing her husband’s mistress. It’s everything you expect it to be: teasing, jealous, angry, a little sad, somewhat fierce. It begins,
All I know of you is in traces: the musky smell of lavender and molasses in the house, his rushed phone calls when he thinks I’m not listening, the look on his face. Maybe if we met, I could explain my situation. Explain my situation. As if situations can be folded into the neat boxes of words, as if the word situation can define this. Define this: you are fucking (fabulous word, perfectly shaped box!) my husband, and for four months, you have occupied my mind, a presence I can’t place.
And there, a broader theme in the collection: someone may have gone, forever or otherwise, someone may just not be there — but the presence is palpable. Or worse, the absence is.
Overall, a well-thought collection. Cohesive, gripping, calm. There were problems I found in individual stories, but having found the gems were almost worth it. That is, I could pretend they weren’t there.
As good as this is, I’m more excited about what else Willis has to offer in the future. It’s her first collection, people. Imagine what more she could do with these under her belt. [I still wish I'd written "Caught"!] And though it wasn’t stellar, it’s damn good, it’s simple, and I needed these stories at this point. I needed to be reminded that fiction need not always be about theatrics.