You Are Not a Stranger Here
by Adam Haslett (2003)
Wow, this is one of the best books of short stories I’ve ever read. Top 5 for sure. I loved four of them — “Notes to My Biographer,” “The Beginnings of Grief,” “Devotion,” and “Divination” — and the rest were merely very good.
“Biographer” is actually in the running for my favorite short story ever. It starts the book off with such a bang, a man who you only realize two pages in is on a manic bender, this searing, frenetic freight train screaming toward a collapsed bridge. I was amazed and enthralled.
“The Good Doctor” applies the brakes somewhat — the worst of the bunch IMO, the most apparently crafted — but “Grief” picks up almost where “Biographer” left off. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that two of Haslett’s best stories, maybe the two best, are written in 1st person; he clearly has a gift for writing twisted, damaged characters in this voice.
But I would actually call “Divination” my second favorite. It is totally heart-wrenching and unexpected, the tale of a boy who may or may not be able to sense deaths before they happen. In fact, it best displays what I most like about these stories in that you have no idea where it’s headed. “Divination” could have ended in one of at least three different ways and been equally effective. I don’t often get chills reading, but the ends of both this and “Biographer” did it for me. Astonishing.
So what makes these stories so good? Haslett has an incredible command of his characters and his plotting. The writing is natural yet impeccable, and both characters and situation feel absolutely authentic. He respects his audience by not hand-feeding important details and plot points. He is deeply in touch with human pain and suffering, yet he conveys them through his stories as gently as possible. And behind the despair is usually a note of redemption which provides the perfect dash of sweetness to his otherwise bitter fruit. It’s jaw-droppingly beautiful is what I’m trying to say.
One of my favorite things about this collection is that despite a common theme throughout the book of suffering and despair, each story is so radically different from the others. This is a feat in itself, to distinguish each of your creations so exactingly, not only in character and plot but also in voice. It’s in stark contrast to other collections including the last one I read, Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies, where the stories quickly began to blend together (see my review).
Ironically, I came into this book wanting to dislike it, just because I’ve become keenly aware of the lack of female representation on my bookshelves and I have been really trying not only to read more female authors but also to better see through the male authors’ machinations. I was a little dismayed after falling head over heels for the first story: “Damnit, I don’t want to find more white male authors to like, I need to get some females up in here, or at least some GD color!”
But I couldn’t help it, it’s just so good. And I was realizing while reading that what really gets me about writing like this (especially in the 1st and 3rd stories) is its audacity and boldness, its edge. Why can I not find more females who write this way? Jhumpa Lahiri, one of the most well-respected female writers of our generation, is as sterile as a counter-spray in comparison. In fact the boldest female authors I can think of are either sci-fi (Atwood, Le Guin), black (Morrison, Hurston, Walker), or both (Octavia E. Butler). What am I missing here?
So yeah, in conclusion: read this book, it’s a work of art and will most likely leave you awe-struck. I can’t wait to read more of him. Oh, and please someone tell me which female authors approach this level of exceptionality so that I can read them too! I swear I’m trying, I’m really trying!