Further Adventures in the Restless Universe
 by Dawn Raffel

Dzanc Books
Second Collection

" ‘Mom’, Jerome says- a word that means everything and nothing, a holder of space, Elaina thinks, a consonant receptacle. ‘Who said I was scared?’ "

Reviewed by Melissa Lee-Houghton

An insight on the book sleeve explains that Dawn Raffel’s father would read to her nightly from Max Born’s The Restless Universe but that she didn’t understand it, that being "her first recognition that love so often comes with imperfect understanding." Reading Further Adventures in the Restless Universe is very often like flicking through photographs, some you recognize and remember, some you don’t. However, there is a connection running through them, though they’re not necessarily chronological. Yes, it sounds complex. But once you get into the groove, you discover prose that is evocative though often minimal, and expansive though often cut short.

Well, restless is exactly what to expect from this collection.

One of the things that becomes apparent early on, is that Dawn Raffel does not describe her characters by age, appearance etc. so the reader is left to do a lot of the work. I remember reading something Graham Greene wrote about characters: that writers should not go into great depths about their characters and a good piece of fiction does not rely on that, but can construct the environment within which readers can let their own imaginations flourish. The opening story in the book, Near Taurus is a tiny flash piece, and although hardly anything is explained or eluded directly, there is a sense of something else, a huge open emotional rawness, a journey that has been arrived at.

Her Purchase is gorgeous. So much poetry, such a lightness. The story about a mother and son’s relationship, rests uncomfortably on the line, "She smells Jerome’s skin as she lies down beside him, divided, awake, and wonders, will she miss him?" You can’t always be certain of the narrative or which direction it is heading. Yet, it strikes up an awkward relationship between reader and text, which the imagination balances out.

Mostly, the stories are written in staccato phrases, blasts of insight and witty lines that burst out of nowhere and are delightfully off-kilter. The dialogue is often straight. It’s snappy and curt. Which sometimes can have a numbing, distancing effect. Sibling reminded me of a Solzhenitsyn prose poem. A snapshot or memory recalled after being buried.

In Love, a grandfather recalls an early memory of a horse, once sold to a travelling show. It’s a more conventional piece, it’s slower, not as disjointed, but still has a curious ending and is marvelously bittersweet.

The Myth of Drowning is written entirely in dialogue between a couple in bed, one of whom is trying to sleep. The conversation is hazy, funny and endearing; short, sharp phrases keep the story flowing.

True sadness hits hard in Steam, a story of a woman, (or what I assumed to be a woman) whose mother has passed away. Following an accident at her workplace while she is away, she confesses "I wished just a little that I had been there." It’s sobering and perfectly articulated. The first three lines set up the scene so deftly, they leave you wanting more. It’s a clever tale, with a superb ending, just leaning against melancholy, touching sleeves.

Raffel has a way of catching you off-guard, it’s often necessary to read closely and tentatively, to let it all sink in.

Cheaters runs with the metaphor of "the book of the night." "Their covers are tattered, shabby. The spine is worse for wear." It attempts something unusual, something unconventional. Raffel pushes to the limits, and the end results are risky. This particular piece felt as though it was struggling under the weight of the metaphor, almost rescued by the lines "He kindles the lamp. Paragraphs spill out unvoiced: Languid suspicions; an episode from childhood…" There is so much of a sense of freedom in Raffel’s prose. It is light and sparse, juxtaposed with distinct, poetic lines that add vibrancy and mystery.

The story Seven Spells is a real triumph. It charts the fainting spells one woman has had over the course of her school years, through to her pregnancy and motherhood. The story is written in sections and progresses chronologically. There’s a real empathy and concern invested in the reading of the piece, which is made doubly heartwarming by the outcome.

Dawn Raffel doesn’t deal with complex narratives and complex characters, she takes snapshots of the person and magnifies them. The infinite, the sublime, in the barest detail.

Read a story from this collection on Oprah.com

Melissa Lee-Houghton’s first collection of poems, A Body Made of You, is published by Penned in the Margins. Her poetry and short fiction have appeared in Tears in the Fence, Succour, Magma and Poetry Salzburg Review and her work is forthcoming in The Reader and La Reata.
Melissa's other Short Reviews: Philip Shirley "Oh Don't You Cry For me"

Jason Brown "Why the Devil Chose New England for His Work"

Delmore Schwartz "In Dreams Begin Responsibilities"   

David Gaffney "Aromabingo"

Elizabeth Baines "Balancing on the Edge of the World"

John Saul "As Rivers Flow"

Stephanie Johnson "One of These Things Is Not Like the Others"

Nicholas Royle (ed) "'68: New Stories from Children of the Revolution"

NIk Perring "Not So Perfect"

Tom Vowler "The Method"
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Dawn Raffel is author of the novel, Carrying the Body, and In the Year on Long Division, a short story collection. She is now Editor at Large, Books at Readers Digest, and the editor of The Literarian, the magazine for the Center for Fiction in New York. She lives outside New York City with her husband and sons.

Read an interview with Dawn Raffel