“This will be difficult to explain,” a father told his children on the revelation that their road accident was somewhat shockingly not what it first appeared. The statement is embedded in a story about a family’s dissembling, an experience haunted by fragmented and veiled memories of an SS raid on their father’s childhood home. The complexity of the title story fulfills the whole collection’s promise: no simple statement can be made as to what this book is “about.”
Author of the 2010 Giller Prize-winning novel The Sentimentalists, Johanna Skibsrud is also author of two poetry collections, the latter genre being the subject of her present doctoral work. In between these two forms, the short story serves as an effective tight focus for her characters’ epiphanic moments, whether they would acknowledge them or not. It also helps highlight the skilled poetic density of her language, such as her description of trees in the Japanese streets that were cultivated to appear wild: “Toward their own very specific, requisite immoderation.”
Explanations are not the only things that prove elusive, as the title of this collection suggests; the prior stage of self-perception proves just as difficult. In the opening story “The Electric Man,” a young woman working at the Auberge DesJardins has a series of encounters with an enigmatic guest whose quirky self-description is troubled by a harrowing revelation at the story’s close. Still, his elusive identity seems more substantial than her own attempts to “place” herself, or even to be captured in a portrait.
“The Limit” begins with a piercing description of a father driving around his estranged thirteen-year-old daughter. Having joked about getting her to drive he immediately wants to treat it as a joke, “but then he can’t because he hates the kind of man who would laugh like that, even if he is that kind of man.” Such a sad impasse later leads to the memory of a buffalo hunt from the man’s youth. There he recalls an emerging ambivalence about the right course in life, which proved part of the reason he’d stayed in the same confined geographic area. Skibsrud could certainly treat this “kind of man” with a simplified, even dismissive judgment. As the story reaches its close, however, we find her narration to have shown a sensitivity alert to the complexities, even the awkward winsomeness, hidden in his provincial outlook.
The problem of untranslatability, present in each story, is given a linguistic turn in “French Lessons.” Martha’s language training in her host city of Paris was supposed to come from the grammar charts covering her bedroom walls. Instead she learns, in ways alternately funny and tragic, the deeper gap between herself and her host—a blind Frenchwoman whose minutely ordered life contains an untouchable sadness. The story, with an epigraph by Roland Barthes, is a deeply personal take on linguistic theory. Although more overt in this case, all of Skibsrud’s stories have a philosophical and contemplative cast. The premises and events are significant, but it is often the internal movement, or lack thereof, that receive her incisive treatment.
Many of the stories treat characters who have transplanted themselves. Whether the character has relocated or not, however, the borders of the self are what Skibsrud appears most interested in. In “Cleats,” for example, a woman leaves her husband and daughter to move to Paris. As her husband attempts to draw her back, we see that her confines remain well in place:
She had, Carey said, over and over again, “chosen a life”—and now, he said, a touch of hurt in his voice, like a child, that life needed attending. It caused in Fay, briefly, in the moment that she heard it—that thing quivering there in his voice, canned in the telephone, on the other end of the line—a sweeping sadness, the depth of which she was not brave enough even to properly feel, let along gauge or understand.
It only took a moment for her to forget this tone of the conversation, however. When she recalled his actual words she felt no more for him than for a neglected houseplant.
For all Skibsrud’s skill in articulating a character’s inability to feel the import of what is happening to them, she is also able to let the reader feel on the external opaqueness of a character. After an event threatens financial ruin for a couple in “Angus’s Bull,” the husband repeats only a deflated “H-yep” as his table companions look silently on. For all the impasses and missed cues, however, meaningful encounter does occur in the book, and usually all the more vividly for being in such bold relief. The wife in this same story briskly seduces her husband on the cusp of their realization of a new life of hardship, showing a brash, liberating love in the face of constraint.
This freedom is shown at numerous junctures when, in contrast to either external or internal restlessness, characters are given a task or relationship where they feel ready for the appropriate action. This is seen in how the husband in “Angus’s Bull” feels after his wife’s expression of love and a fortuitous turn of events, or the way the young boy in “The Limit” comes to know in the hunt “exactly who he was—the precise limits of his body—and what to do.” For all the characters’ ruminations, there are clear points when no explanation is forthcoming, but neither is any further reflection needed.
It should be pointed out that several of the characters’ thoughts are in abstractions that seem to float free of the stories’ inciting incidents or any later plotted resolution:
She was caught, at that exact point of intersection between impossibility and desire. Trapped into it, just like everyone else, no matter how—or how variously—she attempted to extract herself. Without faith, and yet…an errant sense of direction, and of purpose, all the same. Always that—yes. The very process of everything as it occurred (always as if for the first time, and so without contrast) leading to the perpetual and most likely false conviction that there actually existed, at the under-layer of things, something infinitely resilient, immutable, and forgiving; that it would be possible, always, to pause…to defer…to destroy, even, if necessary; begin over again.
As nicely as this is phrased, some readers will have a harder time following these trains of thought as they proceed beyond the story’s limits. Granted, such passages could at times be more rooted in the particular language of the character or the tangible elements of the setting. I would argue, though, that a strength of these stories lies in taking time to probe beneath the often false constancies of place or self, attempting that common human pursuit of synthesis—a search for self-knowledge that spans settings as different as the titles “Signac’s Boats” and “Angus’s Bull” suggest. Moreover, the collection shouldn’t be overly criticized for being too little driven by the plot. Several of the stories achieve a satisfyingly surprising twist that completely disrupt the reflective trajectories begun in the stories.
Finally, these stories are tremendously personally challenging, however subtly deployed. Through Skibsrud’s matter-of-fact articulations of a character’s self-deception, I was often jarred into wondering what I was missing and how I might go about naming it with like care. Meanwhile, her celebration of the small but meaningful gestures evoked a sense of hope towards the beauty of human connection. Moving from text to the contours of our lives will prove a difficult task. Nevertheless, Skibsrud’s humane precision as a writer draws us to seek encounter beyond the chasms that exist—whether between persons or within the self—even should the explanation itself remain an open question.