Friday
Dec052014

Everywhere Stories

Edited by Clifford Garstang

 

Press 53
October 2014
978-1941209110

Reviewed by Christopher X. Shade


 

In "Eggs," the opening story in Everywhere Stories: Short Fiction from a Small Planet, a thirteen-year-old girl in rural Central Africa Republic, when her mother dies, takes her two younger sisters from village to village until they reach the capital. A distant aunt takes in the youngest two, but turns her out; she's old enough, she is told, to fend for herself. Now, she wears borrowed lipstick and is on her way to a bar to meet a man: "to find a man with the means to live in a solid, concrete house with a tin roof, more than one room, and a latrine that's not communal." She has never "made fun" with a man. In this story, we are drawn into the girl's world and moved by the dramatic action of her circumstance. We are transported.

In twenty stories by twenty authors set in twenty countries, and organized by Africa, the Americas, Antarctica, Asia, Europe, and Oceania, the unifying theme of Everywhere Stories is that each story transports the reader. Clifford Garstang, who edited the collection, says that he has "always been interested in multicultural fiction and stories set outside the U.S." because of his own experiences abroad as a Peace Corps volunteer and an international lawyer. He has a keen eye for spotting good fiction.

Along with variety of place, the collection exhibits a variety of tones and structures. Some stories are largely about American experiences in an unfamiliar place. In "The Money Pill," a man visiting Cuba is seduced by a woman who is attracted to him; what this woman sees in him he does not comprehend. It seems that he is not willing to comprehend, and so after they have sex he does not know how to behave or how to appreciate what has happened: he gives her money. She is insulted, telling him, "I'm not a prostitute." In "Rue Rachel," another story about an American abroad, a college student from Long Island travels by train to Montreal to see her boyfriend attending McGill. The story's narrative tone is very close to her perspective. She treats him dismissively, and treats everything she experiences dismissively. In both of these stories, neither American character chooses to engage meaningfully in a place away from home.

Though these stories are entertaining and illustrative, the more compelling are those without Americans. One such story is "A Husband and Wife Are One Satan," set in Kazakhstan, in which a married couple quarrel to draw business to their restaurant. It is a moving portrait of identity and love, and the hard work required to attain them. Every scene is set in the restaurant, revealing the many walks of Kazakhstani life: Kazakh and Tatar and Russian, Muslim and Christian, coupled and widowed, teenaged and long in the tooth. A few pages in, the author lyrically addresses the nature of the everywhere story in a description of the restaurant patrons: "[they were] connected by a common energy, an energy unseen to them but to the spiritual master or poet as the blue-white glow simultaneously broadcasting the same flickering patterns from identical square boxes out window after window onto street after street night after night."

"Heathens," one of the most moving and stunning stories in the anthology, blurs the line between native and outsider. The ballast of the story is a teacher's desire to belong, to be Costa Rican rather than gringo, after having lived and taught children there for a year. Her name is Lana, but mostly she is called Teacher. The Costa Ricans in her life refer to the gringos as her friends; she corrects them every time. Her colleagues say, "Teacher, your friends are outside in the schoolyard," and she replies, "They're not my friends." The gringos are young evangelicals who have come to pass out pamphlets and go house to house, spreading the message that faith in God is the path that will lead the Costa Ricans out of everyday suffering. Lana reluctantly befriends one of these evangelicals, Molly. "I saw you as I was on my way to school, a clot of gringos in the middle of the road […] I kept going, walking to school, hoping that none of you would see me. But you, Molly, saw me and thought I was a friend." Lana's heightened tensions are revealed in second person asides directed at Molly: "I came to Costa Rica to get away from people like you. I went as far away from you as I could get, and here you are." In a touching moment, a seven-year-old student tells Lana that she's a tourist, and Lana is outraged that a child sees her as a gringo. In his introduction, Garstang compares the fiction writer to the archaeologist, "digging, brushing away what doesn't belong and revealing what a casual observer—a tourist—might miss." "Heathens" does this and more. It places native and outsider side by side, with an observer fluent in the good and bad of both.

"The Ring" details the final night in a Hungarian town for a family of circus high-wire performers: Miklos and Anna and their daughter Irena. The story is wonderfully accessible. It might be set in Small Town, America. Just change the job and scenery, and the story would unfold the same way. As an everywhere story, this one succeeds well. Anna pines for better circumstances and fears aging: "I can sit here alone with the mirror, my true enemy." She wants to stop going from town to town. She wants to settle in a "good" town. Miklos does not want change. "For Miklos, today is today and tomorrow is tomorrow." The story opens with Miklos saying, "But Anna, we are a family here." And then Anna's conflict is clear, with hints of shame, describing their family as "Gypsies with a big tent." Their teenage daughter Irena is in love with a circus boy. Her mother tells her, "I will not have you love this lowly Punjab."

On closer reading, it is not Small Town, America. It is Hungary. Perhaps the narrator fails to observe setting in all the ways that a narrator of a story in this collection should. Its every-family dynamics and tensions paint an authentic scene. The author is American, and per the author's notes, this story was inspired by a visit to a one-ring circus in Venice, Italy. Has this author been to Hungary? Does it matter?

Garstang's passing grade indicates that it does not. He introduces the book with his selection standards: "fiction can transport you and show you the essential details, the soul of a place." This suggests that "The Ring" gives us everything that we need: a traveling circus, intimately-drawn lives in a trailer. Outside of Miklos and Anna's "row of trailers, their dim lamps burning within" there is a nearby train station and a camp of gypsies. The townspeople and their homes are out of view, and out of reach. The townspeople arrive in cars and fill the tent. They watch the circus acts, but do not have access to the richer, everywhere story of Anna, Miklos, and Irena that is unfolding before them. It is not what they have come to see, though, and they don't know what they're missing.