by M Bobowski
At first it seemed that Nature's Magician
appropriate story to lend its title to this collection by Anthony
Cropper. It's a disjointed story that flits from thought to thought, a
jumble of childhood memories here, explanation of scientific
experiments there, and a dash of marital intimacies and infidelities
for spice. The commonality, the thing that gives form to apparently
random thoughts and memories, is the narrator's desire for a grand
unified theory — a way to make sense of the sum of his
In the end, he's still looking. The
collection feels disjointed, too, and I didn't see a connection between
Cropper's voice is strong and gives
continuity. In the case of his nameless narrators (and there are a lot
of them), it overpowers. There's nothing to prevent the I who sits
beside the bed of his comatose brother in Of All Things from
being the same I
who has conversations with his wife based on slips of paper drawn from
a jar in Birdsong
or the I whose wife leaves in This
is My Life. They all sound
Where Cropper's voice serves him
well is in
his third person stories. It holds them together despite experiments
with structure and makes them my favorites. In particular, Crocodiles is
patterned after a
play. It begins with a cast of characters and a description of the
setting. The action takes place in a single room, props like the Hoover
and the bottle of vinegar are referred to in brief slugs of action, and
the story is told primarily through dialogue. It's crisp and spare,
immediate in the present tense, and beautifully constructed with
The only flaw in an otherwise
is the ending, or rather, the lack of. Crocodiles would
have been stronger
for cutting the song from the end, which I wasn't able to bring myself
to read after the first time.
Cropper shows the same weakness in
for me, the most memorable story in Nature's
The two stories are similar in several regards. They share the choice
of third person point of view. Both use a slightly experimental form;
the story is
structured like a play, in The
Carpenter the story is told in twenty-two micro-chapters.
they both have endings that drag out for no discernible reason, as
though Cropper was afraid to just let them stop.
Carpenter begins like an old-school fairytale. The title
character, the Carpenter, is poor and must choose between paying rent
or buying the wood he needs to ply his trade. He chooses the wood and
moves into the damp barn that serves him as a workshop, but falls ill,
and while he sleeps in a fever he receives a prophetic dream. He wakes
to find himself robbed of all but one small piece of sycamore, and it
just gets worse from there.
Though it's never explicit, there
seems to be
a loose kinship between the Carpenter and Jesus. The parallels go
beyond the choice of trade. The Carpenter is a good man frustrated by
the failings of lesser men. The greed of the merchant who fails to pay
him a fair price for his bed ultimately damages his health. The greed
of the robbers deprives him of his livelihood. He says, "I need a
miracle," and a voice comes to him and tells him to make something with
his lone piece of sycamore. Anything. Whatever his heart tells him to
make. He works his last bit of wood (we're never told what he crafts)
and when the customer he has hoped for does not arrive, he despairs. He
blames God. "'If God exists,' he cries out, 'then he has made my
hands cold and my stomach ache.'"
I won't ruin it for you, but the
might. The story itself ends with part twenty. Parts twenty and
twenty-one are, respectively, philosophical pondering on story
construction and an explanation of why the story has no ending. I
sympathize with Cropper — endings are hard and it's tough to know
when to shut up and let the story stand for itself. But it has to be
is less distinct than Crocodiles
It has a more traditional short story structure, and more fluidity
between memory and events (which seems to be a hallmark of Cropper's).
It also doesn't suffer in the ending, wrapping up tightly on itself. It
was in Ice,
on the third or fourth reading, that I discovered the grand unified
theory that defines Nature's
and finally illuminated what had been frustratingly outside my view
— that there is an underlying commonality, that the stories do
fit together, and that it's not just a hodgepodge.
Helen's friend Lola finds enlightenment through a self-help seminar and
as she embarks on her goal of improving her life, they grow apart. Lola
wasn't a great friend, she poached Helen's man after all, but she's not
unlikeable. The relationship between Helen and Lola is true; we've all
had a friend that does crappy things to us and we still keep them
around. Not always because we're forgiving, or we see a better person
inside, but usually because even a friend who is kind of a jerk is
better than being alone.
The irony is that when she seduces
discards Simon, Lola takes away the man Helen loves, and with him her
opportunity to be with someone and to stop being alone. She secures
Helen for herself, staving off her own loneliness, and later discards
her when she begins to lighten her life. Helen realizes "that she would
live for the rest of her life in this same small house and that she
would always be alone."
That's the grand unifying theory of
Magician. These are
stories about being alone.
Bobowski lives in northern
Sweden. She really
likes books and hopes to write one someday.
Frank O'Connor International Short Story Prize
bio: Anthony Cropper has written
two novels and edited three short story collections. He received the
BBC Alfred Bradley Award for Radio Drama for his play I'll Tell You
About Love. His first short story collection Nature's Magician
long-listed for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story
with Anthony Cropper
this book (used or
Bookseller: Route Online
forget your local booksellers and independent book shops! Visit IndieBound.org to find an independent
you in the US
you liked this book you might also like....
Carver "What We Talk About When
We Talk About Love"
Ian Daley (ed) "Bonne Route"
Brautigan "Revenge of the Lawn"
other reviewers thought: