Collection of stories a Rubik's cube for the reader
"We inhabit memories so differently from each other. Or better, our individual memories of a shared event mean such different things to each other." So thinks Louise, one of the dozen or so characters that people the sixteen short stories in "Swallowed by the Cold" (Graywolf Press, 2016) by Jensen Beach. Set in Sweden, where it always seems to be raining or snowing, the mood is one of unrelenting darkness and cold, isolation and alienation, danger and depression. That may not sound inviting, but these are powerful stories about modern life, family, and individual realization that bear reading and even a second look in order to relish the author's insights and technical skill.
This was, evidently, the conclusion of the group of Vermont writers, teachers, librarians, and "passionate supporters of literature" who chose Beach as the 2017 winner of the Vermont Book Award. This was the third year of the award, created and sponsored by Montpelier's Vermont College of Fine Arts. Beach was chosen from a group of eight Vermont authors nominated by Vermont independent bookstore owners for his `"outstanding literary merit." A teacher in Johnson State College's program in writing and literature and the fiction editor of the Green Mountain Review, Beach was born and educated in Sweden and is now a full-time Vermonter.
The book is a challenging but rewarding Rubik's cube of stories. One could dip into the volume at random, as I often do with short story collections, but a reader using that approach would miss out on one of the book's most interesting and intriguing features — the interweaving of the lives of many of the characters from story to story creating a single though discontinuous plot line.
In the first story, "In the Village of Elmstra," we meet Rolf Strand, who has just defeated Frederik Holm in a tennis match; Hendrik Brandt and his wife, Lisa; Hendrik's mistress, Helle, and her husband, Peter; Ingrid Kallstrom, a young girl from the village; and Lennart, Rolf's son. Later stories bring Holm and Kallstrom together, take us to the initial meeting of Hendrik and Helle, and inform us that Lennart's boss is Martin, a closeted gay whose wife, Louise is depressed and dependent on alcohol. Louise drinks too much at a birthday party for Pernella, who is also a friend of Jenny's, who finds Hendrik's overturned car on her way home from the party. Along the way, Lennart's grandfather, Bent, is featured in four stories over many decades which deal with the Winter War between Finland and Russia where he was a Swedish Army soldier. Are you still with me?
By the end of the book, Rolf, Hendrik, Bent, Ingrid Kallstrom's mother, Marie's (that's Lennart's girlfriend) morning coffee shop owner, Ahmed, Louise's neighbor, Barbro Ekman, and a plover from the Denmark shore are all dead. Are you still with me? A rather unremitting series of deaths, affairs, soured relationships, and bad weather would offer ample justification for putting this book aside, but Beach's laconic style, clever segues, and just plain old fine story-telling keeps the reader turning pages until the final one.
Beach does this with short, staccato, Hemingway-esque sentences, abrupt and surprising transitions, and acute observations of the characters and the settings. I was never bored. A constant sense of tension suffused the reading as I awaited the next unexpected connection introduced by a new character and a new story. Oh yes, the man calling Hendrik about Rolf's sudden death is the one-armed tennis professional who had been playing a match with Rolf. Oh yes, Jenny was leaving the same birthday party for the never-actually-seen, but oft referred to, Pernella, as were Martin and Louise. Did they meet there? Did Lennart who worked for Martin know either of them? Who was Pernella, anyway?
I finished this book and then read it again to review and savor the interconnections between the stories and the characters and to focus on the writing itself. On my second reading of the book, I noticed that the title of the second story, "Kino," is also the title of one of the short stories in Haruki Murakami's latest book, "Men Without Women." Kino is the Norwegian word for cinema, and refers to the artistry that combines subtle sociological themes and masterful execution of intentionality in the movies. The two stories have these characteristics but nothing else in common and the shared title may be a coincidence, but perhaps not.
Murakami has a wonderfully weird imagination and is a widely acknowledged master of the slightly off-center story, and Beach's collection has a similar feel. In one Murakami-like story, Marie encounters a woman whom she has seen daily in her neighborhood — at her morning coffee shop, grocery shopping with an older woman, and waiting for the train into town. One day Marie strikes up a conversation only to discover that the other woman has no idea who she is or any awareness of the shared universe that Marie had constructed for the two of them. A disappointed Marie muses, "How much of another's life can we rightly assume when we see it only in passing bursts?"
Beach's stories suggest that the difficulty or inability to truly know "the other" is not confined to passing strangers, but inhabits the most intimate relationships of our lives — marriage, parent/child, lovers. His exploration of those hidden aspects of ourselves and our relationships makes for a sometimes bleak but always engaging reading experience.
Michael F. Epstein is a retired physician who reads and writes in Brownsville, Vermont, and Cambridge, Mass. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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