I literally just got a thrill typing out that title–oh, if I could have it for my own! I remember going to a panel for the New Yorker‘s 20 Under 40 issue and when someone asked who should have been the 21st on the list, at least three panelists answered Maile Meloy. At the time I’d only read her story “Liliana,” which, though I like it, was one of just two or three stories I was ambivalent about in the collection. Now that I’ve torn through the whole thing in a day, though, I would easily kick off some of those other writers on the list to give her a spot. Also, now that I’ve read the whole collection in one day, I wish I had stretched it out a bit more. But as far as ways to spend the beginning of Labor Day weekend go, sitting in the orange light that comes through my living room window, listening to folk music and reading Maile Meloy is pretty satisfying.
At least three stories in this collection sparked within me a pure feeing of recognition–I could see in turns of phrases, structural choices and juxtapositions of sentences exactly what I try to do in my own writing. Maile Meloy is my new ultimate aspiration. For example, take this exchange in the story Spy vs. Spy:
…George’s desires were hard to predict, and what he wanted, this time, was to invite the family skiing, over Presidents’ Day. A new girlfriend put him up to it, he said. She thought they should spend time together. It bothered Jonna–that was the girlfriend’s name–that the brothers spent Christmas apart. She worked with George as a ski instructor, and she craved a family, not having had enough of one to understand what a pain in the ass it was.
“So are you inviting us skiing or calling me a pain in the ass?” Aaron asked.
While reading that first paragraph, I would have thought that the last sentence was Aaron’s judgment, not George’s reported dialogue, until Aaron replied to it. Moments like these, while quick to read, must have been carefully constructed, and they abound. These stories are never over-written; there are no show-off-y sentences in the whole book yet none are throw-aways either. They are clear, simple and yet quite daring. Characters express ugly emotions and perform calculated, hurtful acts; stories end on ambiguous or conflicting or devastating notes.
She pulls off Alice Munro feats (sorry, I had to invoke her, I had to…) like matter-of-fact mentions of library-molestations, sudden skull-crushing factory accidents, frozen rural landscapes, love quadrangles and the appearance of potentially menacing strangers, yet makes them her own. And, Munro-style, she was able, in the story “Two-Step” to set off explosions of reader-realizations with only the phrase “his coffee.” I’ll reprint the whole sentence from page ninety-nine here and it will look so normal to you, out of context, but read within the story, it reveals multitudes.
She brought the tea to the table and Naomi accepted it in silence, thinking about the cup, white porcelain, his coffee.
Can you believe it? Believe it.
Love–between couples, within marriages and without (lots of affairs in this book), for children and parents and siblings–is portrayed here as unsentimental, terribly complex, jealousy-wracked, cruel and essential.
Clearly, I didn’t learn this lesson. My love for this collection is maudlin, weepy and evangelical. Read it, read it!