by Weston Cutter
Like most of the big readers I know, I came to Antonya Nelson because she got blurbed and recommended by names I knew and liked (DFWallace looming largest on the book jackets). It’s a dicey and somewhat frustrating thing, coming to writers through other writers, because Nelson’s not someone I should associate, mentally, with Wallace, or Chabon (another blurber), or Eggers (ditto), or anyone at all: Ms. Nelson’s alarmingly singular, totally her own.
If you haven’t read any Antonya Nelson, you for sure have to get right on it, but I can’t imagine what to read first: everything she’s written that I’ve read is great. If you want something to compare her (or at least compare the feeling of reading her) work with, think of the best, scariest, shakiest stuff by AM Homes (short stories, I’m talking about here: I’ve [stupidly] read none of Ms. Nelson’s novels). None of those previous two sentences really matter, though: the only question you need to consider re: ANelson’s stuff is to ask yrself if you care about sentences and about great American short stories, and if the answer’s affirmative in either case, then you read Antonya Nelson.
One of the best parts about great art is its ability to mute the spectator, or to render the recipient speechless, unable to articulate what’s been seen/witnessed. Ms. Nelson’s work does this to me, hugely, and in ways that are somewhat akin to Alice Munro: you can be right there, looking at the page, following the story word by word, but somehow the story moves faster than you can or do, and then the story’s become this big, other, mysterious thing that you somehow watched get built but which still surprises you. All of which, I admit, is way too abstract; let’s get concrete.
In “Biodegradable,” maybe my favorite story in here, the story starts at a bar, where a woman says to a man “You remind me of somebody,” and, it turns out, the man reminds the woman of himself—it turns out they’d met five years earlier. This is in a bar far from her home, by the way—she travels for work. And once they’re in bed later, the woman realizes the man reminds her of her neighbor Garrett, too, a man hurt by a former love and who, now, carries an ache that’s become essential, fundamental.
Actually, even as I try to get the story down, it’s impossible. This, maybe, is how Nelson and Munro are most alike: I defy anyone to casually, simply summarize a story by either woman. There’s just too much: in “Biodegradable,” the woman cheats on her husband, her lover sells his home, the romance falters, the neighbor dies, a photographer takes a key picture of the story’s main character along with her son…there’s just too much. Which, of course, is why these stories are so ravishing: they feel just like life. Sadness needn’t necessarily be developed to come and undo characters; memories rise up moment-to-moment to keep haunting; attempts at helping those we love never quite translate; attempts to help ourselves never quite go as smoothly as hoped for.
It’s got to be pointed out, too, and emphatically: Ms. Nelson’s not bleak, not by a longshot (or, perhaps, I’m just biased and depressive, and I’m therefore no judge, but I don’t think that’s it at all). There’s heartbreak in every story in this book, but there’s something rivetingly gorgeous and…I don’t even know what you’d call it. Not hopeful, necessarily, about the stories, but there’s something maybe generative, something so full that the sorrows and falls are bouyed by coming not just next to but through these good intentions, these hopeful acts.
This feels like a silly review, and if there’s any redemption in it, it’s this: whatever I’m trying and failing to articulate is out there, in hardcover, on shelves at bookstores. Go buy Nothing Right, and read it fast, and then buy the rest of her short stories and read them. Read as much of her stuff as you possibly can.