"Imagine the earth receding, all of its anger, ambition, and misery reduced to miniscule dots and lines below. Imagine the breathtaking view. But maybe the balloon will collapse and one or both of the lovers will be forced to parachute back to earth."
The preceding, from Diane Schoemperlen's "How to Write a Serious Novel About Love" in the short story collection Forms of Devotion, roughly summed up my reading trajectory from start to finish. It's unfair as an accurate measure since the first four stories are terrific. Curiously unfolding, lazy yet menacing, with a final-page jab that is both surprising yet inevitable. After that? Well, the beginning wasn't hot air, of course, but whatever was keeping the magic afloat disappeared, and the problems, inherent even in those early efforts, amplified while the reading experience plummeted.
The fourth short story, "Innocent Objects", is wonderful. Helen, the safe recluse, unloved and slightly odd, who has one antique-shopping "adventure" a year in the city, is burgled at the same time she's away on that perennial journey, the narrative cleverly interspersing Helen's restaurant meals and upscale finds with the intruder's discovery and choice of material booty. When she arrives home and notes the violation, she refrains from calling the police, and, strangely serene, lies down and dreams "Any minute now the thief is going to call her name", which are the same words used to describe the narrative from the thief's actions. The story's expertly handled, that ending perverse though strangely satisfying, even uplifting.
But what's intriguing in those opening four efforts becomes narrow and unconvincing during the last seven stories (more properly categorized as essays, even --in a slighter sense -- considerations). The ironic didacticism, at first charming, becomes repetitive and irritating. The joke has been made ... and made and made ... and the stylistic tic more resembles Derek Jacoby in "I, Claudius" than P. E. Trudeau's downmouthed "whatever". And as often happens when a style congeals, so too do the interests and content. With the exception of the excellent third story "Body Language" (male point of view) and perhaps "On Looking Further Into the Bodies of Men", the entries concern the mid-life crises of "perfect" women and mothers, troubled women, or spinsters. The air becomes claustrophobic, and it reaches its nadir in "Count Your Blessings (A Fairy Tale)", which details a woman's outwardly charmed life with a rich and devoted husband. Eventually, two kids grown up and semi-independent, she ponders her options but grows increasingly depressed. The exact nature of her complaints aren't spelled out, though there are billboard-sized clues in the form of uncaring women (whom she had turned away from, by the way, after her marriage), trailer-trash contrasts who outline their own real problems of cheating husbands, deranged progeny, and physical ailments. I cheered when hearing the voices of these women (unfortunately, elsewhere Schoemperlen isn't much interested in dialogue, or indeed, of the peculiar energy of her characters). But the upshot? The caring husband and truly suffering women are again contrasted with our sympathetic and neurasthenic protagonist, as is evidenced, first, in a lame feminist discourse, and then (hey, it's fairy tale, but that's no excuse) by the doctor curing her by first anesthetizing her, and then clipping out her heart. Get it? Only the rare few with heart suffer. And why were the other women, and hubby, heartless? Well, because they didn't or couldn't listen to her unformed worries.
The world, in these essays, then, though layered with good writing, is a small one, sensitive yet paradoxically ungracious.