Laura van den Berg’s intricately plotted stories are narrative nonplaces, glutted with information and drift
Richmond International Airport was a horrible place to start reading Laura van den Berg’s second collection, The Isle of Youth, whose opening story begins: “The first thing that went wrong was the emergency landing.” I am a nervous flyer and almost closed the book in an act of self-mercy. But the sign at the gate was already posting a one-hour delay, and waiting with a terrifying distraction was better than no distraction at all. Besides, I wanted to know the second thing that went wrong, and the third. Van den Berg drew me in.
As daylight faded and the one-hour delay stretched to three, I began to appreciate the airport as an ideal atmosphere for reading The Isle of Youth. The terminal’s jittery mood matched the book’s, and not just because many of van den Berg’s stories take place on airplanes, in hotel rooms, in cars, in convenience stores, those transitory “sleas” of contemporary life, as the French anthropologist Marc Augé calls them, but because van den Berg’s stories are, in a sense, narrative nonplaces. They spin tense, elaborate plots but end before they reach a destination, before it is possible for us to make meaning of them. When this narrative malaise isn’t paired with sufficient intricacy, it can feel unearned, but in van den Berg’s best and most complexly plotted stories, this evasive strategy beautifully exposes the difficulty of sustaining connection in an era when it is bizarrely easy to place several thousand miles between ourselves and our spouses, our siblings, our homes.
Van den Berg excels at complexity, eccentricity, maximalism of plot. Some incredible, massive books require only a sentence of plot summary: “A man wanders around Dublin for a day;” “A crazed captain seeks a white whale.” Their ingeniousness emerges in the telling of the story, in the lushness of their prose. Van den Berg’s best stories don’t work like this. Her prose is bare, not lush; what subtlety she achieves is inherent in her stories’ finely wrought structures. The more words required to describe one, the better it is. Her emphases on elaborate plot and intentional loose ends are a refreshing departure from the contemporary taste for tidy, minimal plot paired with maximal voices.
Van den Berg’s prose is not maximal, not gorgeous—nor does it want to be. The stories studiously avoid beauty, and when it appears uninvited, as in Patagonia and Paris, it is just another concept whose meaning eludes characters. Cities and landscapes are described most often by visitors seeing them for the first time, by people who don’t know enough to interpret them adequately or aren’t happy enough to appreciate their beauty. Even the “places” here act like nonplaces: Cruddy apartments and dim houses are occupied by characters who want to be elsewhere, who use their homes as stepping-stones to futures unlikely to arrive, who want to escape a present suddenly gone sour.
But the characters themselves resemble nonplaces most of all. The inhabitants of Augé’s nonplaces are too inundated with information to perceive their surroundings coherently; van den Berg’s characters are too full of their own histories to perceive themselves coherently. They do not seem to associate their actions with their consciousness; they move through their days expecting the world’s illusion to fade and their real lives to start; they cannot holistically integrate the fragments of event and observation that nonetheless shape them.
The book’s epigraph is a sentence from Yoko Tawada’s Naked Eye: “I felt I was playing a part in a movie with a plot unknown to me.” In “I Looked for You, I Called Your Name,” the narrator feels always “half-present and half-absent” due to the death of her twin sister in infancy. The main character of the eponymous last story agrees to switch identities with her (living) twin sister because she is desperate to escape her own life. These young (or relatively young) women lack self-knowledge, and it makes them disastrously unhappy. But they tend to ask few questions of themselves. Instead, to learn about their own lives, they seek meaning by questioning the painful presence (and even more painful absences) of the people who matter to them.
In the traits they share, these narrators are rather typical of contemporary American fictional characters. They perform boldness and moxie to mask a lack of self-identity and assurance. They turn to crime—some petty, some grand—to achieve the emotional highs that are missing from the rest of their lives. At times, van den Berg’s dips into the lacuna of lost identity freshen her prose and illuminate her characters; at other times, they nudge her to the brink of cliché. Stories start just before the characters hit their lowest of low points and end before they’ve had a chance to pick themselves up again. And their lives can be so bleak, so unrelentingly miserable—due to internal or external circumstance—that they are hard to believe. Even the worst depressive, we feel, occasionally stumbles into hope. These characters don’t. On the rare occasion they dare conceive of future happiness—a teenage girl imagines attending magic school, for example—their dreams are quickly, brutally quashed. These stories make readers reluctant voyeurs, if not masochists.
This bizarre bleakness stems primarily from the characters’ inability to communicate with others. Their relationships are destroyed, or en route to destruction, or at least incredibly damaged. Husbands misunderstand wives, and vice versa; fathers skip town; mothers keep coldly aloof from their affection-starved daughters. Even siblings—who seem to share the strongest bonds—betray and abandon and ignore each other. The various iterations of dysfunction read less like an encyclopedia of antisociality, which might provide an interesting commentary on human behavior, than dull repetition with an occasional difference.
But the two strongest stories display a careful attention to character development. The voices of these stories’ unnamed narrators don’t differ much: van den Berg writes characters from many areas of the country and diverse social classes but doesn’t mark their speech with traces of regional or class-based dialect—again, she doesn’t want her prose to shine—but in this case the similarity of voice highlights the fundamental difference in the narrators’ mode of relating to others. I suppose I am saying that van den Berg’s work would not lose much in translation. For in a way, van den Berg has already translated her characters by giving words to thoughts that they would never verbalize in speech or writing. (She does not write writers.)
In the excellent “I Looked for You, I Called Your Name,” we meet a youngish, newlywed lawyer trudging through her not-so-happy honeymoon in Patagonia (the plane makes its emergency landing in South America). Uncomfortable in her new marriage, the bride has reservations about her attentive but cartoonishly boorish husband that swell into full-fledged doubts. She describes her feelings for him as an “attachment certainly”: “though I was never sure it was love. But what did it mean to be in love? Maybe all the things people said about falling in love, about the initial torrent of joy, were a lie.”
I underlined these words. I remember thinking them, too often, in every romantic relationship I had—until I finally fell in love. It is a relief to see them so plainly in print.
The following story, “Opa-Locka,” is told by a youngish, recently divorced, probably lower-middle-class private investigator living with her sister in southern Florida, van den Berg’s native territory. The narrator of “Opa-Locka” describes her relationship with her ex-husband very differently: “I met my husband while working at a watch store in Pinecrest. He brought a Swiss Army in for repair. He’d had it for a decade; he said he liked to hold on to things. We married a year later, in the Miami courthouse. I loved him, but I didn’t always understand how to be honest.” The first woman spends the better part of a page failing to understand what love is and the whole story realizing she doesn’t love her husband. The second one tosses off the declaration “I loved him” without a second thought.
The first story depicts a universe in which romantic relationships are troubled because the emotions associated with them are nebulous, unstable, and mysterious. The second story jolts us into another subjective world altogether, in which emotions like love can be concrete and nameable but in which other factors (like the inability to be honest) can still destroy relationships.
There is even a neat symmetrical structure to the arrangement of The Isle of Youth. The first and last stories involve twin sisters; but in the first the sister is absent, whereas in the last she appears. The second and sixth stories deal with sleazy missing fathers: In one he lives too long; in the other he dies too soon. The third and fifth stories trace a sister’s love for her brother: In one, the brother is about to be lost at the story’s end; in the other, he is lost just before the story starts. In the fourth and central story, the narrator is left all alone in a foreign city. Beyond noting the emphasis on sisterly love in “Lessons,” I can summarize it adequately with the sentence “Runaway teenaged cousins rob banks.” I can’t do the same for the better stories, for which a summary would require exactly as many words as the stories themselves.
“Opa-Locka,” one of the missing father stories, ends up taking a tack completely different from the one it promises. We think we are reading a story about two private investigators—sisters—searching for a man named Mr. Defonte who mysteriously vanishes, only to learn later that we are really reading a story about the sisters’ vanished father. The father is not the same man as Mr. Defonte—that setup would be too convenient. And Mr. Defonte disappears as a character as soon as the story line involving the father becomes important; neither the readers nor the sisters learn what happens to him. It’s a fascinating, true turn: Life really is unsatisfying in that particular way. “Acrobat” and “Antarctica,” also good, don’t leave so many questions unanswered but also get their narrative energy from unexpected plot turns.
After “Opa-Locka,” it was hard to get excited about reading the other missing father story, “The Greatest Escape.” By the time I started it, I had boarded my plane and was flying north over a black Atlantic, skirting a vivid line of thunderstorms—the cause of the delay—whose forked lightning occasionally brightened the windows on the left side of the plane. I read it again later, on the ground, to make sure that my sense of vague dread and looming disaster couldn’t be attributed to a fear of stormy flying. It couldn’t: Like most of van den Berg’s work, the story makes you feel that something important and terrible is about to happen. In “The Greatest Escape” that something does happen. But it’s exactly what I expected.