Reviewed by Scott Doyle
I came to this book by way of the story Simple Exercises for the Beginning Student (included in Best American Short Stories 2005), a quiet stunner that is easily on my top ten list all-time. I approached the full collection with a certain anxious anticipation: hoping very much to have discovered not just a terrific story, but a terrific writer. And I have. Babylon is a generous collection of seventeen stories spanning a range of voices; the prose is clean but artful; the endings particularly strong—Ohlin really knows how to bring a story home. Though I liked some more than others, there's not a dud in the bunch. Highly recommended.
Simple Exercises remains, for me, the standout here. Originally published in Swink, it zeroes in on a brief but pivotal stretch for an awkward young boy, Kevin, and his mother, Rachel. Our introduction to Kevin is not promising: "He did not have friends. He was silent much of the time. He picked his nose, and when told to stop he would remove his finger slowly and stare at the snot, seemingly hypnotized, then put his hand in his pocket without wiping it." It is as if Ohlin is daring us to dismiss such an unappealing character. But then, slowly, she grants us access to the rich inner world within, showing us all we would have missed had we looked away. The story is a duet, alternating seamlessly between Kevin's point-of-view and that of his mother, tested by circumstance into making impossible choices. Not at lot seems to happen, and Rachel appears stuck for much of the story. But the small distance mother and son travel feels momentous in Ohlin's hands. Even on re-reading this story, and knowing what's to come, there are moments here that make me collapse inside like a house of cards.
Another favorite is Meeting Uncle Bob. Two couples, Lucy and her boyfriend Spike, Spike's Uncle Bob and his girlfriend Miriam, spend a couple of days at Bob's cabin in the country. Again, not much seems to happen. But in a few strokes, Ohlin captures so much of the fragility and hope of relationships: what makes us take the leap, and what so often dooms those same relationships. And, as she does in a few stories, she deftly makes the kind of abrupt jump in time that's hard to get away with in a shorter story, and if you're not Alice Munro.
I Love to Dance at Weddings is a very different story, but also juxtaposes two relationships to revealing effect. In Trouble with the Dutchman is yet another look at how we come together and drift apart; but each story is fresh, it doesn't feel like she's repeating herself. Land of the Midnight Sun looks at a fleeting young love, and features another artfully executed jump in time to the future, and then back again.
Throughout, the language is considered, unfussy, and emotionally resonant. Transcription opens with a hospital patient sitting in bed, coughing, "his red face hanging over his chest like a heavy bloom"—and then closes with a careful reprise of that final word, "bloom". In The Swanger Blood, a problem child cries uncontrollably, his little hands "twisting the hem of his striped T-shirt in an anguished, strangely adult, Lady Macbeth-like gesture." Local News captures its essence efficiently: "When your real life collides with the one you've been dreaming of, it's hard to know which should win out."
A small inversion lends the opening line of A Theory of Entropy a muscle it wouldn't otherwise have: "What could reach them here was the mail, and Claire took the boat across the lake to Bob's store to pick it up." Those first four words especially—what could reach them—set up perfectly a story about a growing distance between two people. As the story continues, we trace its subtle emotional arc only if we pay close attention to the language—including an essential "because" set off, crucially, by commas.
If Ohlin has a weakness, it's as a dramatist. She is a master of the quiet story, and often that approach is ideal. But elsewhere I found myself wishing she'd push the story itself further, let it grow a little untidy, put her characters in tighter spots. While her light touch is one of her great strengths, allowing her to move deftly through time and point-of-view, there are moments when it doesn't serve her as well: critical junctures in a story when it seems she should slow down and dig—and dig messily even—rather than artfully glance and summarize. The King of Kohlrabi, for instance (despite its winningly plucky protagonist Aggie, and a wonderfully turned ending), falters by not delivering fully a couple of key dramatic moments. And in Wonders Never Cease, the ending especially, the author leans too heavily on language to resolve what has not been sufficiently explored dramatically. At a certain point a character thinks, motherfucker—and one wonders what might have happened had she just come out and said it. In The Tennis Partner the terrific ending doesn't pack the punch it should because neither the story's events nor its male narrator have been inhabited deeply enough.
But these are minor quibbles. And those of a reader getting greedy because he so admires a writer, and expects the world of her. The world she does deliver is worth an extended visit, and then some.
Read an excerpt from one of the stories from this collection on RandomHouse.com.
Publisher: Random House
Publication Date: 2006
First collection?: Yes
Awards: Shortlisted, 2007 Story Prize
Author bio: Born in Montreal, Alix Ohlin studied at Harvard and later at the Michener Center. Her fiction has appeared in journals such as Shenandoah and One Story, and has been included in both the Best New American Voices and Best American Short Story anthologies. Her novel The Missing Person was published in 2005. She lives in Easton, Pennsylvania, and teaches at Lafayette College.
Read an interview with Alix Ohlin
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