both ways

BY NICO VREELAND

Author: Maile Meloy

2009, Riverhead

Best ebook deal: Sony

Filed under: Short Stories, Literary

Meloy’s oddly styled first novel, Liars and Saints, consisted almost entirely of plot summary, something verboten by the old writers’ group adage about showing and not telling. Liars and Saints covered decades in just a few hundred pages, and rarely paused long enough to let a full scene play out.

Both Ways has the vestiges of that technique, but Meloy shows signs of moving toward a more traditional dose of dramatization to go with her narration. Still, Both Ways has a broad, could-go-anywhere feel to it, and Meloy keeps her penchant for packing years into paragraphs.

As a reader, this means that you’re never quite sure, for better or for worse, what you’re reading about. The story that begins with a man’s parents dying might never mention them again, instead focusing on his crappy construction job years later.

In this collection, the strongest stories are those that feature more scene than summary, but Meloy’s tendency and ability to take stories on long, snaking left turns gives them a wild-card feel and a persistent, compelling undercurrent of danger.

However, Meloy hasn’t quite mastered this mix of dramatization and narration―sometimes she plays out scenes that have no real weight, and she often stops short of pushing her characters into the pit of drama they can so clearly sense.

Ultimately, Both Ways is connective tissue in the muscular body of work of a very good writer. She’s taking the next step in her career, and while she’s not there yet, she’s definitely an author to keep an eye on.

With a lot of writers, you know the shape of the story from just the first few pages. Family gathering. Life epiphany. Coming of age. Downward spiral. This happens with a few of Meloy’s stories―“Spy vs. Spy,” for instance, is a simple family conflict over a ski weekend―but often her openings are red herrings and stories veer off into altogether different territory. It’s a disorienting feeling, but not altogether bad for you.

And while I liked that off-balance feeling, the stories I enjoyed most were the most straightforward. “Spy vs. Spy” has simple, well-drawn characters having a tough time relating. Another favorite, “O Tannenbaum,” takes place over a single winter night, when a family cutting down a Christmas tree picks up a pair of hitchhikers named Bonnie and Clyde. Are they criminals or just another couple in trouble? And what should be done in each case? These stories are each essentially one extended scene, but they’re compelling and nuanced despite their traditional structure.

Unfortunately, other scene-heavy stories fall flat. “Liliana,” my least favorite story, is about a money-hungry father who can’t understand why his estranged Nazi movie-star grandmother (whom he doesn’t like and doesn’t speak to) leaves him out of her will. Meloy fails to make him and his family very sympathetic and the story eventually ends unsatisfyingly. Similarly, “The Children” is a strange story about a father and family man having two simultaneous affairs. It plays out in odd confusing scenes that never quite add up.

Meloy also has her share of hobbyhorses. She has a soft spot for working people, adulterers, and overprotective fathers. And she has a tireless appetite for describing breasts. She keeps an exhaustive, continuous inventory of almost every pair of breasts that enters a narrative―size, location, desirability, everything is tracked. Sometimes a character’s breasts are her only defining feature.

Another, more integral hobbyhorse is Meloy’s campaign to define the relatively hopeless emotional state of people in impossible situations. The father in “O Tannenbaum” puts one name to this feeling: he calls it “the silent, submerged unhappiness.” Also toward this end, there’s a section in “The Children” that gives this collection its title. Near the end, the adulterous father thinks:

There was a poem Meg had brought home from college, with the line “Both ways is the only way I want it.” The force with which he wanted it both ways made him grit his teeth. What kind of fool wanted it only one way?

OK, it’s a good point and well-executed. But when in life do you actually get it both ways? Meloy seems unwilling to entirely push her characters out of their wishfulness and into decision-making. The result is that she often creates interesting insights and intriguing moments but she’s just as often content to close stories on this feeling of childish weltschmerz that her characters never feel they deserve.

Some reviews (such as the editorial review at Both Ways‘s Amazon page) have praised the acuity with which Meloy portrays the feelings her characters have. And that’s definitely true, but for me it’s not enough. I want to see people acting and reacting under the strain of those feelings, and Meloy is phenomenal at this―when she chooses to do it. She’s at her best when characters are not just feeling that submerged sadness but actually acting on it, or in spite of it.

However, too often stories devolve into either the revelation of a single plot point, or the expression of a feeling without action. While the sense that she’ll sometimes leave you in the lurch adds to that sense of unexpectedness and unbalance, sometimes you’re just in the lurch.

There are several excellent, heartbreaking stories in here, but I’ve got to take them more as a sign that Meloy is a writer everybody should watch, rather than proof that this is a collectioneverybody should read.

Similar books: Close Range, by Annie Proulx; Interpreter of Maladies, by Jhumpa Lahiri

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