The Bigness of the World
 by Lori Ostlund

University of Georgia Press
2009, Hardback
First collection

awards: Winner, 2008 Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction;  California Book Award for First Fiction,  Edmund White Debut Fiction Award

Lori Ostlund has taught in Spain, Malaysia, and New Mexico and currently lives and teaches in San Francisco. Her work has appeared in such journals as the Georgia Review, Kenyon Review, New England Review, and Hobart. The Bigness of the World was the winner of the Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction in 2008.

Read an interview with Lori Ostlund

"I sat on the bed and tried to determine the exact moment when her decision had been made, when she thought to herself 'Enough,' but I could not, for it seemed to me a bit like trying to pinpoint the exact sip with which one had become drunk."

Reviewed by Annie Clarkson

These eleven stories take us in unexpected directions. We start out thinking, oh, I know where this story is going. We enjoy the revealing and beautifully detailed prose, and then suddenly we are somewhere unfamiliar, somewhere we would never have predicted, and everything has shifted.

The narratives are exploratory, and almost seem to wander between countries, dates, characters and parts of the stories in ways that seems random or tangential, similarly to how memory works, making connections that might initially seem disjointed.

But, this writer knows what she is doing. Lori Ostlund is exploring, within the widest means, the fallibility and vulnerability of her characters: the way they blurt things out, or cry when they shouldn’t, underestimate or overestimate themselves or others, how they can’t cope with their lives or a part of their lives, can’t communicate with someone they love, or haven’t seen the end of their relationship coming.

And we’re like these characters as readers, because we don’t see it coming either. We have been nodding our heads in agreement with a character only to be as shocked or disturbed as they are by what has occurred.

The stories are set in places where it seems the writer grew up, lived or travelled: Spain, Malaysia, Java, New Mexico, mainly Minnesota. Many are teachers. There are quite a few stories about disintegrating relationships, particularly between women. It seems as though she uses what is familiar to her as a writer as a way of exploring the unfamiliar, and in these stories the familiar and unfamiliar are not as separate as we imagine: people go abroad to escape routine, only to find it is still there; others find strangeness exists within their home environment.

In The Day You Were Born, for instance, a 9-year-old girl copes with her father’s mental breakdown. She has answers trick questions, is shown the cuts on his wrists, and protects each of her parents by trying to be more aware than they are. There are sad poetic details in the way her father describes the symptoms of his anxiety as "the maggots", and her mother as always having "a pebble in her shoe". This story explores the complexity of the situation and how the father is completely inappropriate and yet is more emotionally attuned to his daughter her in certain ways because "[h]e understands about the dark."

The characters are unique and often quirky. Ilsa in The Bigness of the World is "absolutely petrified" of abbreviations and math and "deeply afraid of" mold on bread and cars with power windows. Annabel’s father in The Day You Were Born gives her sardines with marshmallows to see if she will eat it as a test of how much she loves him. The relationship between a woman and her father is characterised by their conversations about poultry and fowl in Talking Fowl With My Father.

These are people we might meet, living ordinary lives, and yet what happens to them is frightening, upsetting, or slowly life-changing: two children find a parent has been sent to prison; several long-term relationships disintegrate; a group of tourists witness a death; a teacher uses unusual discipline within the classroom; a young boy discovers his dad is gay.

Many of these stories have moments that could be described as defining or resonant. Each one is unexpected because there are so many incidental details and tiny stories within each story that we can never be sure which particular details will become heightened by whatever emotions the characters (and the reader) have experienced. Ilsa’s conversation with the children about the bigness of the world for instance, which she stresses they need to understand because "there have been times in my life when the bigness of the world has been my only consolation". In Bed Death, the story of a disintegrating relationship between two women, failure is symbolised by the apartment block where people go to kill themselves because it is "the only building tall enough.’"

Observations like these are earned. What Lori Ostlund is able to do that many writers fail to do is capture so authentically realisations, moments of change, and the aching truths within her stories. The different ways there are that someone can say "Don’t Cry", for instance. Or what can bring us to tears, like how ‘A simple gesture of sympathy or solidarity, even, it seemed, one of a meteorological nature, could crumble one’s resolve far more quickly than adversity itself.’

This is very exciting fiction. The stories are quietly and beautifully observed. Lori Ostlund pushes her stories far beyond where many short story writers go, and the endings of her stories are quietly devastating.

Read a story from this collection in the Bellingham Review

Annie Clarkson  is a poet and short story writer living in Manchester, UK. Her chapbook of prose poems Winter Hands was published by Shadow Train Books in 2007. Her short fiction has been published in various anthologies, magazines and online, including Brace (Comma), Unsaid Undone (Flax Books), Transmission, Ouroboros Review, Succour, Mslexia, Dreamcatcher, Cake, and Pank magazine.

Annie's other Short Reviews: Anthony De Sa "Barnacle Love"

Laura Chester "Rancho Weirdo"

Daniel Grandbois "Unlucky Lucky Days"

Josephine Rowe "East of Here, Close to Water"

Mark Illis "Tender"

"One World Anthology"

Samuel Ligon "Drift and Swerve"

Alice Zorn "Ruins and Relics"

Ailsa Cox "The Real Louise"

Mary Gaitskill "Don't Cry"

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