William Trevor, arguably the greatest living writer of short fiction, once wrote, “The modern short story may be defined as the distillation of an essence.”
The style and content of the deceptively complex stories in Wendy Brenner’s new collection, Phone Calls from the Dead–couched in a particularly contemporary American idiom, steeped in popular culture and verging toward absurdity–are worlds away from Trevor’s, but they too seem to match the highest standards which may be associated with Trevor’s description of the form. The brevity of Brenner’s fiction represents not lightness, but rather a condensation of weighty themes and difficult emotions. To use one of Trevor’s words in a way he may not have intended, the ideas at the base of Brenner’s stories seem essential to understanding the America of the new millennium: the pervasive irrationality of the world around us, the persistent questioning (particularly by younger generations) of the purpose behind one’s life, the search for meaning in a world that may finally, we fear, contain none.
Remarkably for their small size and idiosyncratic (if not downright peculiar) subject matter, these stories tap powerfully, perceptively, into the core of such crises. Often positioned at the intersections between technology and the supernatural, between the quantifiable and the inexplicable, the best of these stories strive to make sense of a world that may be beyond our powers of comprehension. Cataloging facts and memories, sifting through experiences and emotions, Brenner’s characters search for meaning, try to forge connections, struggle to build some fragile order or sustain some tenuous hope, and yet they often come face-to-face with the limitations of their own existence, the more frightening aspects of the human condition.
And Brenner can do all this while popping off such original metaphors as “her face … was as small-featured and blandly empathetic as an anchorwoman’s, or a Beanie Baby’s”–ridiculing several layers of American culture in one swift kick.
Admittedly, those who’ve read only selections of Brenner’s fiction might find these assessments a bit of a stretch. After all, let’s face it: Aren’t stories like “Are We Almost There” and “Remnants of Earl” most concerned with dating troubles, with women looking for that right boyfriend, lover, soul mate? Well, yes and no. Take this passage from the former: “By college I had given up on you altogether and occupied myself with substitutes–poor substitutes, and I’m sorry for what I did with some of them, but everyone was as lost as I, it seemed.” In “Remnants of Earl,” another narrator lists a few of her failed relationships and makes a decision to “float along, free and unfettered, and simply wait for my destiny to arrive–I’d know it when I saw it, or him.” And in “Awareness,” a woman recently diagnosed with an immune disorder reveals why she stays with a boyfriend who doesn’t treat her well: “I flailed, like any animal, grasping for the nearest life form and hanging on, trying to pull myself back into life as I’d known it. … ”
In each case, surface concerns with dating and boyfriends give way to deeper issues–those of being “lost,” of “waiting,” of “grasping” toward life–and it’s the substance of these words that ultimately proves thematically central. Each character finds herself at the end of her respective story with an unusual and unsettling epiphany: feeling alone, frightened and angry while remembering the emotionally manipulative storyline of Snoopy, Come Home; or considering the perspective of God while watching a German shepherd react to sounds beyond a closed door; or suffused with a “terrible hope” while imagining the existential crisis of a faulty telecommunications system.
Brenner slyly crafts stories that function on several levels and successfully navigate an array of tones, offering laugh-out-loud lines before switching deftly into passages boasting emotional weight or poignant imagery. Stories often begin with light and slightly zany premises, leading the reader into the delightfully realized worlds of her uncommon characters. Several characters, for example, recognize supernatural connections and find comfort in mystical phenomena. The narrator of “The Cantankerous Judge” notices that during times of inner turmoil, “black people, homeless people, and dogs would stop and stare at me on the street, give me special significant looks, or speak to me with sudden kindness and intimacy, as if I were giving off a magic distress charge only they could see.” In “Mr. Puniverse,” a gay photographer reflects, “During one weekend when I was sixteen … the year I was coming out, the compressor in my mother’s meat freezer, my Sunbird’s alternator, and my Swatch battery had all suddenly and mysteriously died. Then our answering machine, which otherwise worked fine, stopped taking messages from Kim Falvey, the girl I was dating. Clearly, it was trying to help me.”
Elsewhere characters are more active, more obsessive in their quest to find their place in a perplexing universe. Discovering purpose in cataloging scientific anomalies, the title character of “The Anomalist” effects order from seemingly random events, like some scientific catcher in the rye: “There was no end to the oddball, ragtag data cast off by science, calling out for his attention. And as long as he was breathing, no anomaly would spin off into oblivion, left to float in obscurity like a dead star or an unseen meteor. He’d be there to catch them all, give them their proper due.”
The collection’s finest story, “The Human Side of Instrumental Transcommunication,” epitomizes Brenner’s apparent interests in scientific anomaly, communication, absurdity and loss. Presented as a welcoming speech to the “third annual Conference of the Instrumental Transcommunication Network,” the story seems to begin with a wink to readers–a listing of organizations such as “the Engineering Anomalies Research Society (EARS), the Electromagnetic Aberrations Research Society (also EARS), the Tinnitus Family, and Chronic Pain Anonymous,” which pokes gentle fun at offbeat clubs and their kooky camaraderie. But the story turns serious, even solemn, as the speaker’s welcoming remarks reveal a tale of electronic devices recording messages from “spirit beings,” people receiving supernatural communications and, finally, the speaker’s own eager anticipation of a phone call from his recently deceased son.
The idea defies reason; absurdity reigns. And yet there may be nothing more essentially truthful in the book than this man’s persistent faith in the impossible. Some of the most provocative literature exists at the edge of the unknowable, and like many of Brenner’s stories, this one does not find answers but ends instead on a note of horrible, heart-rending hopefulness: “Still, we wait. We listen like safecrackers, we listen like sleuths. We remember the words of those listeners who came before us, the brave ones who started this whole thing. Stay on the station, tune in correctly. Here it is summer, always summer! Soon it will work everywhere!”
Grief is certainly not a new topic in literature, but Brenner’s success here lies in her ability to encapsulate universal human crises in particulars that make them more resonant. The skewed perspectives and the overriding sense of absurdity are matched by a subversive spirit of reverence, and the combination of these qualities makes not only for rich fiction but also for a surprisingly provocative assessment of both the gracefulness and frailty of modern existence.
In the midst of this, how successful are Brenner’s characters in establishing the order of their own lives, taking meaningful action or achieving some comforting resolution? Brenner steadfastly avoids the compromises of the tidy ending in the context of what she seems to recognize as an ultimately ambiguous universe. Even some stories that appear to end on a note of hope generally find hope compromised, and the characters find themselves bewildered by impending realities; at best, her characters muddle through, make the best of things, survive. While they may not always prevail, they do endure, and sustain faith despite the odds–and maybe there’s more than a little hope in that.