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Visiting Hours & Other Stories

Dan E. Wickett, (ed)

 
"A waiting room isn’t really about time. It’s about displacement ..."

Reviewed by Scott Doyle

Reading an anthology of stories by twenty-two different authors, united only by a common theme, is a chance to assess how that theme presents the writer with certain opportunities on the one hand, and certain challenges and problems on the other.

A writing teacher whose approach is rooted in theater and in the rigor of writing one-act plays taught me much about dramatic situations. She no longer uses the word conflict in her teaching: it doesn't tell enough, doesn't demand enough. Say a brother and sister have just lost their mother; one was close to her, the other not — is that conflict? Of a sort. But say that same brother and sister, along with their divergent feelings, have forty-eight hours to decide whether or not to sell the mother's house, or keep it in the family—that is a dramatic situation.

Such concerns come to mind in trying to assess Visiting Hours, a collection of stories mostly about mortality, and about visiting, and waiting: often in hospitals, but also prisons, private homes, and orphanages. Some stories — regardless of the depth of feeling, closeness of observation, or quality of prose — are hemmed in from the start by their basic set-up. They are a closed system, denying their authors the open-ended volatility necessary for good drama. I find it difficult to bring a tough critical eye to this book — both because I admire its publisher and editor, and because the stories are clearly so deeply felt. I hope a general consideration of the anthology's limitations, followed by a look at the stories that to my eye do succeed, comes off as fair and helpful.

As Daniel Wickett points out in his preface, the dynamics of visiting are peculiar: one person is going to leave, the other will stay. The challenge for a writer is to make such a set-up open and dynamic, rather than static and closed. Too often in Visiting Hours we get sensitive renderings of scenarios that are inherently moving but hold little surprise. We get an account that reads more than a bit like memoir. We get a sequence of moments without the shaping, the vision, great fiction requires.

Part of the problem is how loaded are illness and dying. There is a tendency, I think, for the writer to lean too heavily on their built-in emotion and heft, to neglect to build a fully realized fictional world around them. Intercutting a visit to the hospital with backstory goes only so far if that visit lacks essential dramatic tension. There are scenarios here — children finding out about a parent's infidelity, a man seeing his father's proclivities appear in his own son — that read as overly familiar, and without fresh insight. And several times we find characters struggling with resentment towards a dying parent or spouse who has disappointed, and the lines are too clear, the decked stacked against the dying one. Which brings to mind another inherent problem, or at least challenge: how to create a dynamic dramatic encounter when one character is so clearly at a disadvantage.

It's fair at this point to ask: Just how much drama can be wrung from a character visiting a dying loved one? Plenty, if you're Alice Munro writing The Bear Comes Over the Mountain (recently adapted in the film Away From Her). She makes a potentially static scenario dynamic by opening it up: introducing a competing love interest for both characters, a truth-telling nurse, and a complicated backstory that lends the present story a rich subtext. Had she left it as the story of a man checking his Alzheimer's-challenged wife into a rest home, Bear … would have resembled some of the stories in Visiting Hours — earnest, moving slice-of-life renderings that nonetheless fall short of compelling drama. 

Yet there are stories in this anthology that rise to the challenge and find a way to transcend potentially limiting premises.

"I used photographs when I ran out of words," begins Quinn Dalton's Not a Leaf Stirring, a story that works quietly and luminously within the bounds it sets for itself. A woman uses old photographs to communicate with her memory-ravaged grandmother in her final days. They become a marvelous vehicle for fleshing out the life of the family. The story becomes a moving meditation on what holding on to a memory actually means. When the grandmother first begins to fade, "She had," her granddaughter realizes, "become the narrator of one-line poems, endlessly repeated." Like the best photographs, this story succeeds by evoking what lies outside the frame.

Stephen Gillis' brief Vanishing Acts also keeps it simple, very much going with a less-is-more approach. A man and his dying father play a memory game that hints at their larger lives but is much more. A simple motif threads the story and gives every moment resonance; the emotion of the story is buried and indirect. When near the end the narrator, holding his father's pillow, says, "I feel if I let go the pillow will crash through the floor," we are there with him. In The Rain Barrel, Jim Nichols also makes maximum use of a few simple story elements — his father's old outboard motor, the unused house in which it sits—to limn the life of a family, but never tries to explain or summarize. It is content with its own mysteries. As is Ron Rash's Not Waving But Drowning, which spookily draws on a water-buried town for its haunting imagery.

Perhaps the most striking story in the anthology is Pamela Erens' oddly-titled Gaarg. Gaarrgh. Gak. Here the approach is to show us something — a man emerging from a coma after a severe car crash — with utterly fresh eyes. At the center of the story is a complicated and shifting relationship between the man and his doctor. In prose that startlingly conjures the state-of-mind of a man who can now communicate only with his eyes, and who is in a place most of us will never go, Erens completely subverts my preconceived notions of the body's and mind's response to traumatic injury.

Other favorites are Gabrielle Welsh's The Well-Head, in which a gardener finds unexpected insights in her relationship with her eccentric, scooter-limited employer; and Bill Roorbach's Taughannock Falls, in which a traumatic head injury allows two characters to loop back on their past to revealing and moving effect. With twenty-two stories to choose from, each reader will find their share of favorites.

The publisher of Visiting Hours is Press 53, which has a great commitment to the short story form, and to discovering new writers. As does the anthology's editor, Daniel Wickett, both in his capacity as Executive Director of Dzanc Books and as founder of the Emerging Writers Network. Readers are encouraged to check out other offerings by both presses.


 Scott Doyle lives in Los Angeles and writes mainly short fiction.  In print he has a story in the recent issues of New Madrid and River Oak Review. Online he has stories in 580 Split, Sotto Voce, and Night Train.  He is at work on a novel-in-stories.

Scott's other Short Reviews: Alix Ohlin "Babylon and Other Stories"

Axel Thormahlen "A Happy Man"

 

Publisher: Press53

Publication Date: 2008

Paperback/Hardback? Paperback

Authors: Kyle Minor, Benjamin Percy, T.M. McNally, Quinn Dalton, Max Ruback, Beth Ann Bauman, Philip F. Deaver, Steven Gillis, James R. Cooley, Jim Nichols, Pamela Erens, Joseph Freda, Nancy Ginzer, David Abrams, Rochelle Distelheim, Gabriel Welsch, Kaytie M. Lee, Patry Franci,  Lauren Baratz-Logsted, Ron Rash, Bill Roorbach, Michael Milliken, Roberta Israeloff

Editor bio: Daniel E. Wickett  began the Emerging Writers Network in 2000, reviewing books. Since then it has grown to a network of nearly 2000 individuals receiving his book reviews, interviews, e-panels and other literary suggestions. He is a member of the Litblog Co-op. In 2006, he co-founded Dzanc Books with Steven Gillis. Together Wickett and Gillis publish literary fiction, schedule Dzanc Writer-in-Residency programs, and do what they can to help literary journals expand their subscriber bases.  Dan Wickett is also the editor of Visiting Hours, forthcoming from Press 53  in the fall of 2008


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