The Physics of Imaginary Objects

By Tina May Hall

University of Pittsburgh Press
September 2010, Hardcover
168 pages


Reviewed by Jarret Middleton


This is a book of lonely spaces. Poetic prose and icy, minimal speech work their way into those places we don’t expect books to work their way into. If you try to force the language of Tina May Hall’s The Physics of Imaginary Objects you get the feeling it might break or retreat back into the dark forest it came from. It teaches us that responsibility which is so often left out of our current literature, the duty to be delicate and kind, to allow things to take their course without interference. Why consider this our duty? Because beauty and horror find their most extreme expressions without much cause or purpose, so we should be ready. We should expect the distance of the beautiful and the closeness of the horrible and still find a way to live. At the very least this makes us better readers, and at most, makes us better people.

Fifteen stories and one novella shine with brilliant aesthetics. A pregnant woman, whose partner  is away in Phoenix, sleeps with a Canadian repairman who pulls twenty dead squirrels from behind the wall of her kitchen. A woman who cut off her pinkie in the grip of a youthful religious experience meets a man who has lost his voice and the two bond over the severity of what they’ve lost. A repetitive story told in fragments chronicles a historical murder, the victim “a sailor of Swedish extraction.” Next, you are thrown into the narrative of a maniacal cabal of young girls. The Forms of Water in Clouds and Rivers, Ice and Glaciers by John Tyndall, a geological text penned in 1872, is the subtext for “In Your Endeavors, You May Feel My Ghostly Presence (Instructions for Contacting the Dead).” In this story, Hall utilizes Tyndall’s scientifically objective language for her own ends: “Every occurrence in Nature is preceded by other occurrences that are its causes and succeeded by others that are its effects.”

The novella “All the Day’s Sad Stories” tells the story of Mercy and Jake in 47 single-page vignettes, capturing the couple at points of amorous idiosyncrasy and devastating distance. Even if life proceeded without incident and their love persevered, it is not given the chance to emerge unscathed. The very nature of the single-page fragmentation effectively captures the abyssal loneliness of their daily life and love. 

Mercy makes hats with three women who have names like saints. She shops in the market, catalogs household items, discusses chemical compounds at the dinner table, goes to parties, and talks to her friend Morris, whom she kisses. She talks often about blood and her womb. She and Jake watch the Sci-Fi Channel, argue over the economics of having children, and cook in their kitchen in silence. Jake is quickly gleaned through Mercy’s lens: always nearby, but hazy and out-of-focus. 

Everything is governed by stillness. Nothing really ever feels right, but we’re miles away from an explanation of what exactly is wrong. Horror is what’s normal, and these disparate characters adapt themselves to handle the mercurial loneliness of otherwise livable lives. The distance here, the remote separation of every detail, every person, and every thing is what gives this world its meaning and miraculous beauty. Hall has created characters who not only deal with this difficult concept but embody it well. The collection finds a wholeness like a cadaver sewn back up after dissection, the thick lines of sutures marking each point of entry on the body.

Many lines possess the essence of the whole work. Call it mise en abyme, synecdoche, pars pro toto—whatever it is, it is something endemic to the most effective tracts of knowledge, from the Critique of Pure Reason to the Bible. In the final segment of the novella, “Like a Snake, a Cicada’s Greatest Art Is Its Doubling,” the whole thundering tone of this book is stated in bright, clear language: “A new season of disaster is predicted, but no one can ever truly know what might happen.”

In “Dear Pearl, Who Drowned,” Hall shows a fundamental grasp of the mystery of what objects are, how they come to be, their essences, chimeras, appendages, and the process of how we symbolize ourselves through natural forms.

The palm reader is touching her hand, testing the thickness of skin. She says it’s not worth telling futures, only pasts. The palm reader touches her hand.  She watches her skin stretch. Her skin is trying. Her skin is trying to give up a memory.

The story culminates with immaterial processes pulled from the more-than-physical image of an egg. 

She makes a cup of her mouth and the egg flesh fills it. She bites down hard and the yolk breaks. A million lovely yellow pieces of yolk melt onto her tongue. Eating an egg is like dying–it is so beautiful all on its own, without any help. The egg in her mouth is a blessing of flesh and salt and yellow. The eggs under her feet roll like stones. The egg in her hand is as pure as the heart of a sister, white and hard, strong egg, like a star, like a pearl, grown up around its powdery secret.

Like the above egg, these stories are filled with meat. Grilled steaks, chicken breasts, sausage, “the bloody shreds that cling to the T.” The meat of the face, a human neck, “a crepe-paper cast.”  Knees, elbows, hair, soap, scraps, awkward angles and bends, the places where things end.

Visceral appendages are her philosopher’s stone. They are where all secrets and hidden sequences leap from, as though we were all under spells we have yet to understand–we traipse into the woods at night, fall out of love after decades of contentment, or sever one of our fingers. Hall’s respect for the surfaces of things, the impenetrability of objects that in turn penetrate us, burrow themselves in and plant in us the idea of the world, shows her faith that we exist in a realm of magic.

One quality or attribute, one force or phenomenon transfers onto everything else around it.  Some parts drop off and disappear in the collision. What remain are concepts that are causally linked simply because they are similar; as good a justification as any, and a great principle for literature: “Day means sun. Day means a knob in the shower that has to be turned all the way.  Day means hot.” Many passages read like a magician’s notebook, or the meticulous record of a classical alchemist whose observations proceed with a removed fascination at the world’s ability to always appear while remaining almost entirely hidden.

Each story sets out with an unspoken respect for the deep mystery pervading all that exists. She measures every process equally, and conjures plots and characters that balance, tit-for-tat, the force of each action with an opposite (or at least a nullifying) reaction. This is part of Hall’s “physics,” as she sees them. Her fiction is a documentation of their workings. When the balance of opposing forces is focused on, it is not overwhelming–or pitiable–because she has a way of convincing us it is absolutely necessary. In “The Woman Who Fell in Love with a Meteorologist and Stopped the Rain,” again, a stunning paragraph reads like an introduction to the message of the entire work:

This is not a love story. If it were, there would be a certain pathos in a woman conjuring a lover out of storm watches and tornado warnings. It is instead a fairy tale, where two people can live in imaginary worlds, bounded only by the limits of the blue screen, clutching remote controls in harmony, and achieve perfect happiness in the four minutes and thirty seconds that they coincide each evening. That is, they could if it weren’t for the complication of a garden.

Without such consistent methods of description the prose could veer into the traditional foreshadowing of a story’s events through a set of well placed and thoroughly controlled images. While Hall’s universe is held together by the unifying principle of mystery, she has achieved the noteworthy goal of creating a system of prose that keeps both characters and aesthetic objects suspended so that any one does not supersede any other, successfully following Borges’ dictum that “things are symbols of themselves.” The author doesn’t take the easy outs of modern fiction and it is much appreciated.

When the language feels stunted at times, it has a way of coming untangled, as if finding a path of least resistance to travel: “everything naturally gravitates toward efficiency.” With the exception of “A Crown of Sonnets Dedicated to Long-Gone Love,” where she turns the power of her imagery to address romantic love by direct use of the sonnet form, the poetics of her prose lend themselves to comparisons with the imagist Charles Simic or the spare, emotionally searing poems of Lorine Niedecker.

“To forget is to discover,” she whispers with pre-Socratic assurance. This is not a metaphor, but rather a direct address about the nature of a world that requires us to forget it; a living concept that pervades all the stories that make up this book. This is a fiction that suggests the natural world is as lonely as we are. Hall takes a brave step past the notion that knowing is somehow the death of meaning and plants her language in the spaces we could either lament as empty or praise as the grounds of universal connection. 

At its best writing is an act of endearment. Letting someone else know that you have no idea what is going on around you, and that, together, you may be able to help each other live. The Physics of Imaginary Objects is one of those endearing acts. It is small, and filled with miniature treasures that range from soft to surprisingly horrid. We should consider ourselves lucky Tina May Hall has given us the chance to discover the things we have forgotten.