What The World Will Look Like When All The Water Leaves Us
  by Laura van den Berg

Dzanc Books 2009, Paperback
First collection

Laura van den Berg  was raised in Florida and earned her MFA at Emerson College. Formerly an assistant editor at Ploughshares, Laura is currently a fiction editor at West Branch and the assistant editor of Memorious, an online journal of new verse and fiction. She has taught writing at Emerson College, Grub Street, and in PEN/New England's Freedom to Write Program.Her fiction has or will soon appear in One Story, Boston Review, Epoch, The Literary Review, American Short Fiction, StoryQuarterly, Best American Nonrequired Reading 2008, Best New American Voices 2010, and The Pushcart Prize XXIV: Best of the Small Presses, among other publications.

Read an interview with Laura van den Berg







"I’ve lost the desire to hold on to that last physical artifact of the life I once had, as though I was buried and re-emerged as a person who doesn’t believe in anything except the way existence rages on, furiously unconscious of when one life ends and another begins."

Reviewed by Elaine Chiew


How amazing and ironic that these stories invoking vast bodies of water – the Loch Ness, the Atlantic, the Mozambique Channel, Lake Michigan (at its deepest, it’s a 1000 feet, did you know?) – should contain characters with such deep thirst. In the title story, a mother goes in search of lemurs while a teenage daughter tries to figure out what she wants to do with her life. In Inverness, a scientist tracking down near-extinct twin flowers (the linnaea borealis) crosses path with another scientific team in search of the Loch Ness monster. In Goodbye My Loveds, a brother is convinced he's found a tunnel to the other side of the world. Again, in Up High in the Air, a woman researching misunderstandings in etymology finds her husband increasingly obsessed with discovering the mishegenabeg (etymology: water snake?) scouring the bottom of Lake Michigan.

These characters' chronic, inveterate searches for the exotic, the nearly-extinct, the mythological, the monstrous, the unknowable, appear as heart-clutching and iconic proxies for that which cannot be so easily searched or found: love that lasts, the answers to the mysterious deaths of two parents, the avoidance of random tragedy, the disappearance of a husband, the search to locate oneself in purpose, time and place, our nameless fears.

The story that most tightly draws this parallel is The Rain Season, where a disillusioned missionary escapes to the Congo in the aftermath of her husband's sudden death in a house-fire. She's caught in a tangle of wanting to leave and wanting to stay – and increasingly, the stories of the mokele-mbembe, the monster that haunts the forest, takes root in her imagination as those things we fear.
"The villagers say the monster is noiseless, that it never roars or groans, that when it moves through the forest, the sound of branches being snapped or water parted fails to echo. If nothing else, I believe this. The worst things in life stalk in silence."

The emotional power in these stories is quiet. There's no word wizardry here, no flash-drama. Accidents happen off-stage, tragedy has already stricken. The emotional power resides in the quiet space before calamity hits. Akira Kurosawa once said, "To be an artist means never to avert your eyes." In the story Up High in the Air, a professor on tenure track studying the etymology of misunderstandings is having an affair with one of her students. Laura van den Berg shows us quietly how her husband probably already knows this. She shows us the protagonist's quiet rebellion when she climbs up with her student-lover wearing only a raincoat and nothing else up to the rooftop of her building to witness an arcing meteor. She lets her character speak to us about her mother who's seeing visitations from her drowned husband and quietly going out of her mind with grief. Our professor talks to her mother and quietly goes bananas herself, hiding in the closet. All this before she ends the affair and the student gets his revenge by calling the department head on her.

This is the stage the story is set on. The storm is unleashed backstage. In a lesser writer, I would call this "averting your eyes", but here, van den Berg has just shown me a new truth, quietly. All that sturm un drang that vents upon the news of her affair with a student made public, the havoc in her marriage, etc – all that is just noise, noise that our professor willy-nilly bears herself through. The moment when she's most in possession of her sanity, the consequences of her actions, the honing in on self and its quiet revelations, the actual act of not averting your gaze -- all that happens in the quiet before the storm, and that mindframe is captured in all its unleashed power here. It makes me want to stand and applaud.

My favorite story in this collection is the first – Where We Must Be. A semi-failed actress gets a job impersonating Bigfoot in a recreation park. Apparently, "some people dream of being chased by Bigfoot". There are echoes of TC Boyle and George Saunders – the same quirky, surreal nature of some of people's desires, the mordant, underplayed dark humor, the deadpan observations of our protagonist --
"I'm watching her from behind a dense cluster of bushes. The fat man has informed me that she wants to be ambushed. This isn't surprising. Most people crave the shock".

In less skilful hands, the mawkish storyline – falling in love with a dying man – might set the more cynical among us groaning. But witness, in a rare selection of precise peeled-back moments, the quiet death of the person who loves the person dying, and you are silenced with sadness.
"I guide him to shore and once he's on dry land, he crouches and begins to shiver violently. I scold myself for not bringing a blanket or towels and try to get him to at least put on his clothes. But he shakes his head and asks me to help him wait it out. It will pass, he tells me. I'm being tested, I realize, to see how long I can endure suffering in another person."

There is much to praise – van den Berg's adept weaving of scientific exploration and fiction, myth and magic, the tender psychological subtlety and elegiac layering of emotional resonance, her bold forays into dark thematic subjects (loneliness, disappointment, death, and more death, the lack of answers to the greatest riddles that invade our lives – why does a husband get up and suddenly leave, evaporating into the rush of a metropolis without a proper explanation (still life with poppies) – why does a daughter want to become a great long-distance swimmer, and why does her mother leave her a postcard with a picture of a desert and a notation on the back that says "what the world will look like when all the water leaves us"?)

Despite my oft-quibble that some of the exotic locales here are bleached of much of its character that Scotland might as well be the Bigfoot National Park, and Madagascar strikes as blandly as the Congo, save for the screechings of its Indri monkeys, the stories here whet the explorer in all of us. Haven't you once wanted to scale the unknown, discover the undiscovered? At bottom these stories pose the question: why do we become explorers of our natural world, go places that may cause our deaths? Perhaps to escape our internal voyages. Her characters don't answer the questions they ask, not because the questions are unanswerable (the desert is our landscape when our children leave us, just as we had left them). No, perhaps the questions aren't answerable because we do not have the sanity to hold the answers they yield.




Read a story from this collection in the Boston Review


Elaine Chiew lives in Hong Kong.  Her work has most recently won First Prize in the Bridport International Short Story Competition, and also appeared in the following anthologies: One World (New Internationalist, 2009), See You Next Tuesday: The Second Coming (Better Non Sequitur Media), Best of the Web 2008 (Dzanc Books), Hobart (the Games Issue), Alimentum (Issue 6) and a number of online publications such as Wigleaf, Night Train, Summerset Review, Storyglossia, et al.

Elaine's other Short Reviews: Sarah Salway "Leading the Dance"

Nona Caspers "Heavier than Air"

Kevin Barry "There are Little Kingdoms"

ZZ Packer "Drinking Coffee Elsewhere"

Tobias Wolff "Our Story Begins"

Nam Le "The Boat"

Jimmy Chen "Typewriter
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AM Homes "Things You Should Know"

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