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The Bignessof the World

It seems fitting that this debut short story collection by Lori Ostlund won the Flannery O’Connor award for short fiction, because Ostlund’s writing has a classic, timeless feel to it that would not have been out of place in O’Connor’s time. The title story, the first story in the book, could have been written last week or fifty years ago. Ostlund creates an eccentric nanny, Ilsa Maria Lumpkin, charming enough to rival Mary Poppins, though life for her two charges, Veronica and Martin, is no fairy tale. Ostlund writes with great sensitivity about children, and the inability of adults to understand their point of view. In addition to the title story, “The Day You Were Born” and “All Boy” both deal with a child’s view of their parents’ crises; in the former, a young girl copes with her father’s mental illness and the resulting disintegration of her parents’ marriage, and in the latter, an effeminate eleven year old boy copes with the stigma of being different, at the same time that his father admits that he is gay and moves out of the house.

It seems fitting that this debut short story collection by Lori Ostlund won the Flannery O’Connor award for short fiction, because Ostlund’s writing has a classic, timeless feel to it that would not have been out of place in O’Connor’s time. The title story, the first story in the book, could have been written last week or fifty years ago. Ostlund creates an eccentric nanny, Ilsa Maria Lumpkin, charming enough to rival Mary Poppins, though life for her two charges, Veronica and Martin, is no fairy tale. Ostlund writes with great sensitivity about children, and the inability of adults to understand their point of view. In addition to the title story, “The Day You Were Born” and “All Boy” both deal with a child’s view of their parents’ crises; in the former, a young girl copes with her father’s mental illness and the resulting disintegration of her parents’ marriage, and in the latter, an effeminate eleven year old boy copes with the stigma of being different, at the same time that his father admits that he is gay and moves out of the house.

Relationships on the decline seem to hold a particular fascination for Ostlund; four of the eleven stories deal with lesbian couples whose relationships are rapidly deteriorating. In “Upon Completion of Baldness,” a woman’s partner returns from Hong Kong with her head shaved, and their communication has broken down so completely that she can’t find the words to ask her about something so obvious. Unfortunately, the characters in these stories are so similar that afterwards, I couldn’t remember which story was which, though all of them were well written. The lesbian couples in the stories are all teachers of English or math, usually in their thirties or forties, and often travel abroad.

Travel is another recurrent theme in the collection; “Idyllic Little Bali” centers on a group of Americans who gravitate towards each other at a hotel in Yogyakarta, tired of explaining themselves to the locals. As we learn more about each character in the group, it becomes clear that they are as foreign to each other as the locals are to them. This story showcases Ostlund’s dry wit, as in this passage describing Joe, one of the Americans:

He lied his way into a progression of increasingly better-paying jobs, his favorite for the chamber of commerce, where he was the guy that got sent out with giant scissors to cut the ribbon when new businesses opened, from which he learned that women really gravitate toward a man with big scissors.

“Idyllic Little Bali” is about as informal as Ostlund’s prose gets. In the title story, Ostlund writes that Ilsa Maria Lumpkin “did not use contractions and scolded us when we did, claiming that they brought down the level of the conversation.” Apparently this is an opinion shared by Ostlund, who uses them only when quoting characters in conversation. This gives her writing a formal (occasionally stilted) feel. I enjoyed, however, the absence of those short sentence fragments often found in contemporary short fiction; Ostlund deftly crafts long sentences, adding clause upon clause without once compromising clarity, as in this passage from “Idyllic Little Bali”:

There, with the night receptionist just outside their door and Indonesian businessmen snoring away behind the paper-thin walls on either side of them, his wife had wakened him in the middle of the night to tell him that she was thoroughly and profoundly miserable, that she had been for years and had been concealing it from him, and that she now understood that he was to blame for all of it, even the fact that she had been concealing it.

A favorite of mine in this collection is “Dr. Deneau’s Punishment,” about an eccentric math teacher whose objection to the school’s encouragement of mediocrity goes unheeded, largely in part to his unorthodox personality and lifestyle, which attracts more attention than his sensible suggestions.

Overall, this is an impressive collection of stories that range widely from tragic to comic (often within the same story). Ostlund has a keen insight into human behavior that allows the reader to recognize themselves in characters with whom, outwardly, they have absolutely nothing in common. And her writing has an old school quality that draws attention not to her style, but to the characters and their stories, which are always compelling.

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