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The Theory of Light and Matter

Andrew Porter

 I saw David walk into her office…I saw him place a hand on her hip. I saw my mother smile. Then I saw her lean into him and kiss his neck. They remained like that, embracing, for what seemed like a long time. I had stopped watching by then. I was looking instead at my father, whose face seemed to have lost all its color. He was biting down on the inside of his lower lip, and I worried that he might start to cry. But instead he just said,
"Explain this to me, son." I shrugged. "Can you explain this to me?" I shook my head.
"No," I said, "I can't."

Reviewed by Carol  Reid

Porter's suburbia is a precarious place. The characters in these ten remarkable stories have a lot to lose. Their hold on the middle class trappings of career, status and reputation is tenuous. Families, marriages, even minds, disintegrate. Their sins - real, imagined, or both - follow them like dogs. 

At the core of this collection is the stoic resilience of the narrators, who seem to share their burdens through the act of storytelling. Porter's prose is clear and unadorned, and impresses the reader with its apparent openness. Through the variable lens of memory, each narrator struggles to get his (occasionally, her) story straight and, in doing so, some version of the truth is revealed. 

The nameless narrator of the opening story, Hole, looks back twelve summers to the event surrounding the loss of his childhood friend and tries to come to a resolution of his role in the tragedy. This very short but profoundly affecting story introduces themes of guilt, responsibility and consequences of impulsive acts which run though many of the stories in the collection. 

Coyotes is told from the point of view of Alex, who recalls a time of crisis in his parents' relationship. As a teenager in the Seventies he faces the breakdown of his talented, but deeply troubled, filmmaker father. Alex resents his increasingly erratic father's attempts to recruit his allegiance, which reach their peak in the scene I've quoted at the top of this review. In this memorable scene, his father directs Alex to watch the events happening in his mother's office window, a deeply disturbing mockery of a drive-in movie. "Maybe if I had known," Alex says, "that it would be years before I saw him again, I might have treated him differently. But I didn't, so I stared out the window at the ocean, ignoring his questions until he finally stopped asking them." 

The title story, The Theory of Light and Matter may be the most ambitious most vexing story of the collection. Here, Porter uses a female narrator and seems to hit a wall in his understanding of her character and her compulsion to carry on an essentially dishonest relationship with one of her college professors. I felt that he let his protagonist off the hook by not allowing her to become aware of her failings as deeply as do his other characters. 

Several of Porter's narrators seem, at the outset, to be on the periphery of events. As the stories progress the reader realizes the nature of the characters' involvement in the outcome. I really enjoyed the sense of revelation provided by this aspect of the stories. In Storms, Porter depicts a family utterly at sea since the death of the narrator's father, years before. The truth of the circumstances leading to the appearance of the narrator's sister sans fiancé shift and twist until the reality of the situation seems unknowable. This is a complicated, exasperating, irresistible portrait of a family disintegrating from all sides. 

The Theory of Light and Matter is wonderful introduction to Andrew Porter's fiction. Do I want to read more? Definitely, yes.

Carol Reid lives and writes in a small community on the west coast of Canada. She is an assistant fiction editor for Sotto Voce magazine, which will debut online in mid-October.

Carol's other Short Reviews: "Crimini: The Bitter Lemon Book of Italian Crime Fiction"   

"Passport to Crime: The Finest Mystery Stories from International Writers"

Richard Matheson "Button, Button: Uncanny Stories"

PublisherUniversity of Georgia Press

Publication Date: Oct 2008

Paperback/Hardback? Paperback/Cloth

First collection?Yes

Awards: Winner, 2007 Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction

Author bio: Andrew Porter received his B.A. in English from Vassar College and an M.F.A. in Fiction Writing from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His fiction has appeared in One Story, Epoch, The Ontario Review, Prairie Schooner, The Antioch Review, StoryQuarterly, The Threepenny Review, Others Voices, Story and The Pushcart Prize Anthology, among others. Currently, Andrew lives in San Antonio, where he is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Trinity University.

Read an interview with Andrew Porter

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Atlanta Journal-Constitution