The Physics of Imaginary Objects
 by Tina May Hall

University of Pittsburgh Press
2010
Paperback
First Collection

Winner of The Drue Heinz Literature Prize 2010







"It 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.

And 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 prints:

The 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 love betrayed.
This 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
:
She 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:
Rosa 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:
A 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.

In 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.

They 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 dancing.

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.



Read a story from this collection in The Minnesota Review


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.
Diane's other Short Reviews: Cliff Garstang "In An Uncharted Country"

Susan Wicks "Roll Up for the Arabian Derby"

Andrew Hurley "The Unusual Death of Julie Christie"

Matt Bell "How They Were Found"

Patrick Cullen "What Came Between"

Matthew Pitt "Attention Please Now"
                     
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Tina May Hall's stories have appeared or are forthcoming in 3rd bed, the minnesota review, Quarterly West, Black Warrior Review, Water-Stone Review, Fairy Tale Review, and other journals. Her novella in prose poems, All the Day's Sad Stories, was published by Caketrain Press in the spring of 2009.
   She teaches at Hamilton College and lives in the snowy Northeast with her husband and son in a house with a ghost in the radiator. 

Read an interview with Tina May Hall