In the Year of Long Division

We looked out from indoors. Nose to glass, we looked, fogging, we looked, through the damp of our exhalations, downstairs, upstairs, piggyback–we saw scenes through see-through curtains, a shadow boxing with a shade, something bubbled, tubside–every which we could find to look, we did; one and the other, and once–or was it twice?–both, in a wash, shriveled and skin-shedding, soaked in looks of bathroom-window-frosted boy. Rings ringed the tub. We left smudges in our wake of who knew what.

In the Year of Long Division, Dawn Raffel

The stories in In the Year of Long Division show the ultimate end of the minimalist impulse: prose becomes poetry, external description subordinated to an internal dialogue, scenes sketched so lightly they become feathery suggestion. It is perhaps no surprise that Raffel calls out her thanks to Gordon Lish at the beginning of her acknowledgements: this is the short story shorn of traditional plot and character as was only hinted at in Raymond Carver’s work.

At its best, this style of storytelling is hypnotic and incantatory. Raffel uses the tools most associated with poetry: repetition, meter, and close attention to the feel as well as the meaning of words mark stories like “In the Year of Long Division,” “We Were Our Age,” and “Somewhere Near Sea Level.” Short sentences and phrases pile up into long, complex structures, and the reader is carried along on the flow of rhythm. The most memorable stories in the collection are told from a child or young adult’s viewpoint, and the elusive style closely matches the misprisions and confusions of adolescence: the central consciousness doesn’t quite understand what’s going on, and we share in that uncertainty.

Other stories, though, are less well-served by the style. Try as I might, I couldn’t quite make sense of “The Seer” or “City of Portage,” even after several readings; there wasn’t enough structure on which to hang the striking images and language to support a narrative sense. “The Trick” and “Table Talk” feel like Carver stories stripped of setting, and lose emotional impact for their lack of concreteness.

This collection is best read the way you would a collection of poetry: slowly, carefully, with long pauses between stories. The experience is rewarding and disorienting, in the way the best poetry can be, and is also demanding like poetry: Raffel’s stories are not for the distracted reader. Her voice is distinctive, though, and her use of language wonderfully disturbing; expect to be haunted by her rhythms and repetitions long after you turn the last page.

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