Winner of the 2011 Mary McCarthy Prize in short fiction, Rise by L. Annette Binder is a book of fourteen stories in which, with each story, we experience living inside a trauma from the subject’s interior eye level. Binder gives a no-blink portrayal of what happens to an individual and the person close to that individual as the trauma is lived and shapes their responses. She constructs her stories around traumas many of us will deal with at one time or another with ourselves or a loved one or collaterally from the newspaper: a child kidnapped at the mall, life lived around a birth defect, a child losing a parent to death, war with a malicious neighbor, molestation of a young teen by a parental figure, being diagnosed with a terminal illness, a driver hitting a child in a crosswalk. Once thrown into trauma that is life-altering, how do we reclaim ourselves . . . or can we?
Trauma has a tsunami pull on the psyche and, when not able to sequester it within the boundary of the everyday normal, Binder shows how the ones affected struggle to right themselves, to hold on, and how difficult it is for them to take in the concern and kindness of their various caretakers, mothers, wives, husbands, grandmothers, neighbors. In “Nod,” a wife wants to pull her husband back from his lostness by giving him a birthday party that he does not want: “She was thinking of a carrot cake and bottles of house merlot, and was there anyone from work he’d like to invite. There was a space for twenty in a big room, maybe twenty-five.”
On his end, in the same paragraph—each of Binder’s paragraphs a condensed fabric of everything . . . past, present, the room, the neighborhood, hopes, fears—he was dealing with an amorphous terror: “He should go back to bed. He should lie down beside her and pull her against his belly, but he stayed in front of the TV. He lay there, and it pushed down on him. The weight of all that air.”
“Nod” is a helpless looking on of what to do with someone unable to articulate what is happening to him, but another character’s efforts, as mundane as they are, are the persistent caring that pull him through. As the young boy in “Halo” says: “It’s good to have somebody who will listen even if they don’t understand.”
In “Shelter,” a story of violence between neighbors develops along a seemingly predictable path, but the ending is unexpected and, in the midst of destruction, makes an octogenarian couple’s whole life together the fulfillment of love’s power. Acts of caring and kindness demand as much hard strength to keep life in balance as the cruel human acts and random chaos requiring them.
The way Binder uses the breakage of trauma to explore the human boundary against “the stars in their strange patterns” lets us experience that curdling nerve of awareness of the universe’s blind eye aspect. In “Wrecking Ball,” a teenager entranced with making and setting off explosives, born from the death of his father, uses destruction to deal with his pain: “There was a reason his father had walked to lunch that day and a reason he crossed against the light. His mother said things were meant to be. They were printed on us before we were born.”
Longing for his father, when a father-figure molests him, he finds a way to retaliate without getting caught. He says of his mother, who had become a therapist after five years of work, study and sacrifice: “All the books she read and all the seminars, and she didn’t understand. Things happen for a reason, sure, but we make reasons ourselves.” While he is having his photo taken with his mother celebrating her graduation, his retaliation is taking place at a distance: “He wanted things to stop, and he wanted them to burn. He wanted his father back from the mountains. The flash was dazzling when it went off. It lit up the whole room.”
Over and over, Binder integrates the inner and outer as she uses coincidental events to capture the driving force within a psychic wound: it is “what” someone focuses on . . . the energy of wounds short-circuit to the world, finding phantom patterns (everywhere) that take on an ensnaring life of their own.
The characters in these stories deal more with “the strange” than “the mystery.” “Mystery” has luminosity, hope, vistas. “Strange” takes us to a dead point of inchoate terror and powerlessness, a down draft into quicksand. As excellent as the writing is, incisive short sentences that march on their own effortlessly, this is an emotionally difficult book: we fully get to glimpse the blind eye aspect and our heroic struggle with it. Some of the characters don’t make it out, as in real life. Some will struggle in a long night all their life, as in real life. Some are saved by rising to the best of what it means to be a human being. The story “Rise,” the book’s namesake, is a believable story of redemption, yet even with attentive human caring and the mystery of grace, redemption is a struggle—but possible.