What’s weird is that Dybek’s analogue seems likelier to be found in poetry than prose. Sure: John Irving writes with lots of similar things cropping up (wrestling, New England, mother/son relationships in his, to Dybek’s Chicago, sensual/sexual encounters, weather like a character and the past like a horse you can’t stop riding or being thrown from), but there’s a way in which Paper Lanterns feels overwhelmingly like a Jack Gilbert book of poetry: it feels and reads like a near-magic, transfixingly beautiful work that circles some central idea/notion/’project’ [let's not fight about this term: I understand that Poetry Is Not a Project, says Lasky et al, and that's fine, but most poets (even--maybe especially--Lasky) have issues or concerns or obsessions that arise again and again in their poems, and to pretend otherwise is dumb and to claim some beef in calling it a project seems silly].
Gilbert’s who strikes me as the apt comparison maybe just because he’s who I’ve been reading lots of lately, but there’s also this thing that Gilbert does a lot which I’d argue Dybek’s doing a lot, too. If you know Gilbert’s stuff, you know that lots of it’s about domestic love (massive/wild understement): he’s a guy who fled to Greece for years so he could ravenously feast on his own life, lived his own way, and then his poems are these unfurled, peeled-back things, all exposure and intimacy. This especially happens more and more as of The Great Fires, his third book, a book as haunted as any—and haunted by the ghost of Michiko, his dead wife (there’s a poem in there which ends with him finding one of her hairs wrapped around the roots of a plant, the thing just about upends the reader, I can’t remember the title though it hardly matters: own the book). Here’s “Michiko Dead”:
He manages like somebody carrying a box
that is too heavy, first with his arms
underneath. When their strength gives out,
he moves the hands forward, hooking them
on the corners, pulling the weight against
his chest. He moves his thumbs slightly
when the fingers begin to tire, and it makes
different muscles take over. Afterward,
he carries it on his shoulder, until the blood
drains out of the arm that is stretched up
to steady the box and the arm goes numb. But now
the man can hold underneath again, so that
he can go on without ever putting the box down.
The whole book’s like this: a continual examination and consideration of how we do it, in this case: how does Jack Gilbert keep living, keep day-to-daying, despite the absence of Michiko?
We’ve certainly now reached the point of the program where it’s fair to ask Okay, but what the hell’s Gilbert got to do with Dybek? Dybek’s two new books, Ecstatic Cahoots and Paper Lantern, were released recently from the evergreat FSG (seriously: if you’re looking to buy books blind, with no knowledge of authors or whatever, you’d be wise to just purchase FSG and Graywolf books and you will, overall, be batting as close to 1.000 as you’re likely to get), and on the books’ release there was attention paid, certainly, but I was struck by the lack of rapturousness that greeted them. Maybe everyone’s still on Saunders and Munro and will get to Dybek shortly. I hope so. I’m nervous that Dybek’s reached that such-a-known-and-established-classic status that folks actually don’t *read* the shit, same as how (I anyway) have a tendency to sometimes skip poems by the Established Greats (Levine, say, or Goldbarth), which skipping’s always fucking idiotic: these guys are the Greats and Masters for reasons.
The books under consideration here are strange, strange books, maybe the weirdest books of fiction that’ll be published this year (I’m including the weird, bracing books dropped with Pacific Northwest-rain-like regularity by Calamari Press, which is another press you’re wise to just regularly purchase from). Here’s how weird these books are: the first story in Ecstatic Cahoots is called “Misterioso” and the entirety of it is as follows:
“You’re going to leave your watch on?”
“You’re leaving on your cross?”
What’s weird about that story is actually not just the story; it’s that, 136 pages later, there’s a story called “Naked,” which begins as follows:
“You’re going to leave your watch on?” she asks him, as if he’s guilty of an indignity on the order of disrobing down to all but his socks.
“You’re leaving on your cross?”
It’s not a question he’d have otherwise asked, especially given the way the cross—gold, delicate, and too tiny to crucify a God larger than an ant—brushes the pale slope of her left breast.
“Naked” goes on for another maybe 500 or so words—it’s over in two pages—but it’s impossible (for this reader anyway) not to feel like this little do-si-do is a perfect capture of one of the best and most beautiful and beguilingly strange things Dybek’s doing: there is identical text in these two stories, but, given the size of “Misterioso,” it’d be easy to, half a book later, come up on “Naked” without quite remembering it. What it reads like more is an echo, an attempt to dig back into whatever impulse led to the first stab at it, anyway (that’s admittedly a reach, but it’s hard not to read “Naked” as something of a revision or deepening of “Misterioso”). I didn’t even intend to get this caught up in this stuff, fascinating though it is: Ecstatic Cahoots is a fine and good book of short fiction, but, at times, the fictions are—due less to brevity than their focus on capturing the arrival and departure of sensations, feelings, sensual conjunctions—ethereal. Which is fine: they’re clearly not made to stick in one’s ribs like the stories in Paper Lantern are (please note I’m not judging, or claiming that rib-stickiness should be some Ultimate Metric in short fiction).
And Oh, dear reader: this is among the year’s glorious collections. Be advised it’s a slow book, Paper Lanterns (which for the record is subtitled Love Stories, which I’d argue could be singularized just fine: love story), but it’s slow in the way a Spanish city is slow during siesta (for some reason I picture Cordoba), slow meaning pausing and—to me anyway—meaning deepening. Here’s sort of what I mean: the second story in the collection is titled “Seiche,” which means this in terms of lakes, which is where the story begins: at Lake Michigan, in Chicago. The first-person narrator’s a case-worker and is relating details from his life: a priest he used to watch swim in the lake on his morning trecks to class when he was a track scholarship student at Loyola; an old love, a study-abroad student named Nisa, from Beirut; and a woman on his current case-worker list. And he’s out there swimming in the Lake now, during a Seiche warning, thinking about this stuff.
Sure, I’ll easily admit it: it’s dumb to list the details of the story. Here’s the qualifier, though: there’s no way I know of to summarize a Dybek story, and—like the built-up power of the best literature, the sort that, when quoted, feels like a shitty joke (we’ve all got our lists of artists who are like this: what good is my quoting a line from Jorie Graham, or Stevens, or Wallace, Kalytiak Davis, whoever, what’s the good of a single line when the ramp that led to the startling precipice of beauty the line earns and exhibits is missing?)—there’s not much to say or do about a Dybek story, criticism-wise, other than gesture excitedly at the work and shout “READ IT!!!” I could do the little above here’s-the-ingredients bit to any of the stories in here (favorite story, hands down: “If I Vanished,” the book’s penultimate and a story thick with a past that the character can’t quite get clear, can’t quite wrestle down and pin into a clear, readable position), but I can’t see what that’d do. What you need to know is that each of the stories in Paper Lantern are remarkable, strange movements in which you’re presented with a situation or scene at the beginning, which scene/situation very quickly shifts, often to the past, often to an amorousness whose photo still hangs importantly in the narrator’s mind’s hallway. Quite a few of the past loves share similarities—the woman the caseworker thinks and talks about in “Seiche” reappears later in another story. Even the title story—which ostensibly is built around a science lab going up in flames, a science lab in which a functioning time machine’s being built—is actually about old love. In this way the book feels remarkably akin to a machine I don’t know the name of. Maybe it’s just called a tumbler. What it is (there’s one in a basement I’m familiar with) is a thing one puts stones into and, by rotating the stones against each other, smooths them. A giant polisher? Something like that (some horologist: pipe up if you’d like). This is what Dybek’s doing in Paper Lanterns: the deepest stones of experience and living are being turned, again and again, flinting against each other, edges cracking off as what’s superfluous is sheared away and what’s most elemental and essential remains. It sounds too huffy and overwrought here, by my writing. It sounds like I’ve swallowed too much Kool-Aid. Here’s what I’d close with: for some of us, a book’s location in one’s domicile says lots, and, for me, it takes a fuck of a lot for me to put a book on one of the two main shelves in the main room of the home (instead of downstairs, or upstairs, or in the office at work). That, of course, is where Dybek’s latest books now are, waiting for me to pull them again, which wait I can all but guarantee will be no longer than a few months. They’re like spells, these stories. Enchantments. I cannot shake them and don’t remotely want to.