What to make of Spooky Action at a Distance? The title of Tom Noyes’s story collection borrows a phrase from Albert Einstein that described his feelings about a phenomenon in quantum mechanics where two particles separated by vast distances – say, millions of light years – become entangled, so that changing the state of one of the particles will instantaneously change the other. The father of relativity thought this was counterintuitive, he never fully accepted quantum mechanics as a system for understanding the microscopic world.
Indeed, there’s an element of the counterintuitive in Noyes’s stories as well. Absurdity meets tragedy in these tales of lonely folks. Consider the character of a novice body-builder who finds himself in possession of his neighbor’s saber. A whiff of the epic emerges in the stories’ flirtation with spirituality, and varied landscapes that count Erie, Pennsylvania, Terre Haute, and Albany among their numbers. Humor, surprise, and eminently engaging narrators keep this collection from falling into the one-note brood that its lonesome stories of family, religion, politics and community might invite.
There’s a story about a man who, upon seeing his son as a man for the first time, finds reason to question his memories. Another story settles for a time in the mind of a boy who can’t read; yet another introduces a man who’s about to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel. One story is told by an expectant first-time mother who lives with the man who will be her child’s father. This man creates an alter ego – “Phantom” – at first as a joke to the narrator, but one that grows increasingly weird and isolating.
The story that sticks in my mind is the first one, “The Straightened Arrow.” The narrator is on a road trip across the U.S. with the Ten Commandments monument that was banned from the grounds of an Alabama state judicial building by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2004. On a mission from his church to tour the monument across the country, and in exile from his uneasy marriage, the narrator’s company is only Vance, a reporter for a Christian magazine. That’s the easy stuff to describe. What’s difficult is how the trajectory of the stories veers at a tour stop in Indiana, when the pair meets locals that are unexpected emotional triggers. From here on out, as with most Noyes stories, it’s too slippery to be summarized, but its closing litany still rings in my mind: “I shalt, I shalt, I shalt.”
It’s interesting to think that Spooky Action at a Distance was a finalist for the Grace Paley Prize in Short Fiction from AWP. While Paley’s stories are embedded in the peculiarities of place and voice, Noyes’s are not. He has a different project, one that’s interested in surprise, in people on the edge and those drawn to symbolic action.