This book. calamity

The first copy of Calamity and Other Stories that I picked up was from the library. I was drawn to it because of the sad, lopsided cupcake featured on the cover. I read it because it was a linked short story collection by a young woman–at the time I wasn’t trying to write one of those yet, but the interest was obviously already there–and also because the blurb on the front invoked both Lorrie Moore and Alice Munro.

Reading along, I was enjoying the work but wasn’t blown away until I reached the story “Anniversary.” It centers around Eileen, who is in her sixties, and her friend Annie. Eileen had almost died years earlier, but had decided not to. The reader learns about her son, Mack, whom she is convinced is about to marry the wrong girl. By way of explanation, Eileen says:

“Her crotch is always showing…She always wear short skirts, and I swear every time I look there’s this view.” Eileen shakes her head at herself, because even though it’s true it’s not at all what she means.

Isn’t that sort of all we need to get what’s wrong with her, though? We know both girls by the end of the book–the right and the wrong one. We know Annie better, too. It was in this story that I finally started to make connections between all the collection’s characters. Even the stories that had come before seemed elevated.

But “Anniversary” is Eileen’s story. She recounts the great romance of her life, with a man she met at a kibbutz. While she directed sunbathing hippies to get some real work done, saying, “What this place really needs is passion,” Len approached her for the first time and compared her to a ballerina. “I said ‘passion,’ not ‘euphemism,'” Eileen replied. From there, they fell in love. But he was much younger, their families disapproved, and although they had a son, they never married. Len died early and suddenly.

On the last page of the story, I encountered what I have learned to identify as my favorite kind of reading experience: the reader epiphany.

We all know the short fiction convention of the character epiphany. It is the “ah ha!” moment, the “and so I realized,” the lesson learned, the big step forward, the culmination of the story. This phenomenon prompted Charles Baxter to write the essay “Against Epiphanies.” They can be cheap and too easy, stating too clearly the “point” of the work, robbing the reader of a deeper experience.

The reader epiphany, though, doesn’t involve the character realizing something, but the reader coming to understand something he/she could not have before. The “ah ha! moment” belongs entirely to the reader.

Should I give it away?!

No. The thing about “Anniversary”‘s reader epiphany is this: it is very small. If I told you here what the revelation is, it would not seem like any kind of big deal. Like most good short stories, to get it, you have to be there–I can’t say it in any fewer words than Ms. Kalotay put down on the page.

It is a wonderful thing to be immersed in a world so quiet and particular that a tiny bit of information–one that would, in other circumstances, barely register as important–can knock the breath out of you. That may seem dramatic, or even cliche, but I can’t help it–it caught me mid-page and rendered me at once dizzy, breathless and thrilled.

Coincidentally, Ms. Kalotay went to the same college as I did and, a few months after discovering Calamity, I was able to attend a school sponsored reading she gave in the city. She read the first story in her collection, “Serenade,” which is lovely in its own right. I bought a book and approached her for a signature, shyly declaring that, since reading it, I couldn’t stop thinking about “Anniversary.”

Ms. Kalotay stopped, pen in hand, and looked up. “That is my favorite story,” she said. “No one has ever mentioned it before. It’s so quiet–I don’t read it out.”

All the more reason for you all to get the book and read it in, somewhere where you can appreciate the quiet.