The Physics of Imaginary
by Tina May Hall
University of Pittsburgh
Winner of The
Drue Heinz Literature Prize 2010
is hard to describe the hole. Digging into a backyard is not enough. A
tear in a shirt is closer to the truth, something that shifts,
something you can see skin through."
Reviewed by Diane Becker
Everything is connected, right? I love the title of Tina May Hall’s
debut collection. It intrigues me. The sort of title that makes me
curious about what sort of stories are inside before I’ve even opened
the book or know anything about the author. This collection contains 15
stories and a novella (All the Day’s Sad Stories,
first published as a chapbook by Caketrain). Some of the stories have
previously appeared in literary magazines, but all were new to me.
the cover’s good too - a piece of twine or string connects a 2D
representation of the outside world (trees) placed on a velvet-covered
table with real twigs scattered over earth at its foot. It’s a lovely
visual interpretation of the interplay between reality, memory and
imagination; a refracted view of the world that Hall creates in each
meticulously crafted story.
I use the word "story" loosely; Hall
is an experimental writer who explores ideas, emotions, and connections
using symbol and metaphor, key images and phrases to structure and
build narratives which might otherwise (like the kite in Kick) lift the reader off his or her feet.
The collection opens with Visitations
in which a pregnant printmaker is left alone in a house which is
invaded by squirrels, birds, wasps, and deer. The connections between
inside and outside, internal and external forces become more intense
the longer she is alone, finding a physical expression for her disquiet through her
two plums and a soft, late-season tomato lured the wasps, and they
posed for me, busy and unhurried, as I cut them into the linoleum
blocks. I sent those prints to a women’s magazine for a story about
is one of the more "conventional" stories dotted throughout the
collection, interleaved with other more experimental pieces of fiction
such as Erratum: Insert "R" in "Transgressors"
where Hall employs repeated phrases and imagery in a sequence of poetic
fragments that she constructs, deconstructs and reconstructs to build
narratives whose meaning shifts as the story unfolds.
Form aside, Hall’s writing throughout is exquisite. One of my favourites is For Dear Pearl, Who Drowned:
makes a cup of her mouth and the egg flesh fills it. She bites down
hard and the yolk breaks. A million lovely yellow pieces of yolk melt
onto her tongue. Eating an egg is like dying - it is so beautiful, all
on its own, without any help. The egg in her mouth is a blessing of
flesh and salt and yellow. The eggs under her feet roll like stones.
The egg in her hand is as pure as the heart of a sister, white and
hard, strong egg, like a star, like a pearl, grown up around its
powdery secret.Hall does great titles and brilliant openings too. This one, Faith is Three Parts Formaldehyde, One Part Ethyl Alcohol, a wonderful, quirky story, laced with suspense, begins:
keeps her finger in a jar on the nightstand. In the morning, it twists
to feel the sunlight. She watches its gentle convulsions and holds her
other fingers up to share the warmth. Since she cut off her finger, she
has worked in the diocese business office, filing and answering phones …Another, There Is a Factory in Sierra Vista where Jesus Is Resurrected Every Hour in Hot Plastic and the Stench of Chicken, written as a sequence of memories, begins: "Stand still I am taking your picture." Using phrases,
images, sounds and smells, the narrator alludes to, but
leaves the motive for the visit unspoken; leaving the reader to sift for clues amongst the memories.
In How to Remember a Bird,
Hall conjures a place - a hole - where memories are preserved, a
place where lost things go, into which people disappear, and on one
rare occasion, reappear. It is a magical tale:
few years ago, a paleontologist from St. Louis came looking for bones
and fell in [...] He is the only person I can remember who went into
the hole and came back out. Before he left to go north and look at
something frozen, he told us that in the hole he saw armchairs and
tennis raquets sticking out of the walls and heaps of shoes and
staplers piled onto ledges. I think it changed him, being in there,
because he didn't talk about rock strata and geologic eras anymore. He
couldn't stop describing items he spotted and sounds he heard and how
dark the center of the hold was, how it was like night, except in
pieces he felt moving against him. We listened to him carefully because
a lot of the things he mentioned were familiar, things we had lost a
long time ago.This Is a Love Story, Too and By the Gleam of Her Teeth, She Will Light the Path Before Her are refracted versions of Red Riding Hood, Last Night of the County Fair, a wonderful vignette.
the final story, a novella, Mercy and Jake are trying to have a baby;
one sad story set in the context of the title's All the Day's Sad
Stories. Like all the stories in this collection, it is acutely
observed. Like sperm writhe against an ovum trying to penetrate it, a
mass of connections wriggle from the core of this story to the external
world in an attempt to make sense of the situation.
listen to Billie Holiday or the evening news as they cook. A little
sadness makes the water boil faster. Another forest fire, a mudslide,
an earthquake. A suicide bomber in a hotel pool. An airstrike at a
wedding party. When the flour tips off the counter onto the linoleum,
their footprints materialize like magic, ghost steps, a diagram for
The Physics of Imaginary Objects
is an impressive collection. Hall has an exceptional imagination;
her stories - often surreal, sometimes
playful, always incisive - are an
inspiration for both readers and writers.
|Diane Becker writes very short
stories, some of which are published in 6S, flashquake, Metazen and
Ink, Sweat and Tears, among others. She is deputy editor of The Short
Review and was longlisted for the Bristol Short Story Prize 2010.