Title: The Principle of Ultimate Indivisibility
Author: Brent Robison
Genre: Literature/Fiction/Short Stories/Philosophical-Existential
Price: $ 14.95
Publisher: Bliss Plot Press
Point of Sale: Amazon.com
Reviewed By: Cheryl Anne Gardner
Cover Copy: A Web of Stories by Brent Robison. The Principle of Ultimate Indivisibility weaves together the disparate lives of ordinary people as they stumble through tiny everyday epiphanies on their way from confusion and loss toward redemption. With structures both traditional and experimental, these thirteen linked stories explore the bonds of family...the impacts of religion...our intertwined struggles with grief, love, and addiction...the intangible circuits of influence that link us to strangers...and the blind but determined striving for consciousness that is common to human experience. Stories in the collection have been published in a variety of journals and have won a Short Fiction Award and an Honorable Mention from Chronogram Magazine, a Fiction Fellowship from the New Jersey Council on the Arts, and a Pushcart Prize nomination.
I can’t really express how much I enjoyed this book. I love experimental storytelling, and I love spiraling interconnected narratives. You definitely get both in this book, from traditional tales of woe and hope, to Aesop’s fable styled flash fiction, but no matter the technique, the writing is uncomplicated and yet extraordinarily aware of its surroundings. The stories are crafted so subtly that even the most interpretive reader will find them thought-provoking and challenging. I found the stories very true to life, specifically the author's interpretation of the dark struggles we often are faced with in life and the little epiphanies that come in their wake. Not every realization we come to in life is a grand awakening, and epiphanies are not always pleasant. After reading each of the individual stories -- some of them comprised of more than one vignette or character study -- I, in my own personal opinion, thought the collection really begged the question: Hope? Is it really genuine or is it something we invent as a way to justify our acceptance. With each and every story, that thought gnawed on my subconscious.
What also really impressed me was that many of the stories had conflicting interpretations. For instance, in the story “Baptism” -- warning spoiler alert that can't be helped -- an orphaned Native American boy, through tragedy, winds up being fostered by a Mormon family. Upon the initial reading, I could sense some underlying scathing criticism pointed at religious intolerance, intolerance in general. It also made me think hard about the “collective consciousness” that is religion and how it affects the level of freedom people feel they have. As the story progresses, prejudice and alienation turn to trust and acceptance only to betray each other in the end. We can share in the hope when the young Mormon son decides to embrace his new brother, despite the initial cultural bigotry, and through this embracement of an an ideal utterly foreign to his own, he begins to rebel. We can share in his suffocating existence and in the liberation he feels by proxy, but in the end, when a bad decision takes the life of his newfound brother, we also share in his guilt. The Native American boy, through death, is set free, and the Mormon boy is left to regret his sins. Upon a second reading though, we might look at things entirely different, in that the Native American boy was offered redemption. He was to be saved from his heretical existence. Via his refusal to give up his identity, he became the evil usurper, punished in the end for attempting to assert influence over the young Mormon boy. How you take the story will really depend on your own personal dogma.
I found this refracted point of view in many of the stories in the book and found it almost ironic that none of the dénouements, such as they were, really offered any closure. These stories have an uneasy alliance with hope. In the story “Phoenix Egg” we can infer hope rises from the ash. Seems appropriate since the story is about 9-11, but, it’s not quite as simple as that, and again in this one, the reader is subjected to a bit of the pain full on. In he first vignette of this backward moving story we begin with an NYPD officer who, after discarding his life, runs away to a secluded cabin because the futility of what he felt during his volunteer work clearing the rubble from 9-11 was too much for him to bear. The futility and the mortally wounding sense of dread that he clings to manifest themselves in a necklace he found in the rubble, which he has secreted away with him always. In the second vignette, we get a portrait of a journey as we follow the Native American jewelry maker on his quest for a better life, and in the last vignette of the story, that necklace comes full circle as it has made its way from the jewelry maker to a lover and then from one lover to another as a gift pledging eternal devotion. In the end, the main character is high atop one of the towers, twirling the necklace between her fingers as she reminisces about her lover while a small blip of a plane becomes visible in the distance. In that moment, the reader has privileged information. We know what’s going to happen. That woman will die a terrible violent death, her lover will mourn her loss eternal, a country will rage, and an NYPD officer will stand at the edge of the abyss. It’s almost a shameful feeling of hopelessness the reader feels after the last line.
In another story “Saxaphone,” a man’s ideal image of his grandfather is destroyed. Everything he ever assumed about his family he finds out is wrong. The discovery of this err eventually leads to the redemption of his father as the son confronts his own as well as his mother’s alcoholism. In yet another story, we have a man’s darkest desire exposed in his willingness to idly ponder how the world and all its complications will end. The metaphor of the man poisoning the nuisance squirrels in his attic was most disturbing. In the story “Signs,” we experience the little violations that can wear away at our comfort and our sanity. It reveals Jung’s secret order in the disorder and how even the unpredictable and the frightening can become predictable and comforting. Of course my favorite story deals with a man obsessed with the emptiness, the unbearable lightness of being, if you will, and the voids that loss can create in our souls.
Anyway, there is a lot going on in this book. A lot of themes, but most are of the addiction variety: addictions to love, grief, religion, assumptions, loneliness, predictability. Human’s addicted to their pain. This book explores fear in all its wonderous variety. We all share the same collective pathos. There is a lot to experience in this book: a lot of different techniques, a lot of POV shifts. A lot of tense and tempo changes, and yet the messages remain constant, subtle, though not subjugated by the writing. With each successive story we are kept ever so slightly on the edge, even though the situations are relatable, even ordinary. I have never had signs put on my lawn by some unknown assailant, but I know what it is to be driven mad by a neighbor’s barking dog. I know what that violation feels like. I also know what loss feels like, and what it feels like to have an out of control sibling. Most readers will be able to experience these stories on a very intimate level. The characters are almost modern society archetypes in a way, and they appear and reappear in later stories as strangers connect and reconnect with each other in very deliberate and at the same time very coincidental ways. This is a very fine effort indeed, very balanced between the light and the dark. There is no melodrama here, just cold, hard, hopeful reality. And even though the characters are merely sketches, they are hand drawn portraits of humanity, meticulously crafted with all their clichés intact. I was hard-pressed to choose a line that summed up the book, there were so many to pick over that I could have obsessed with the post-it flags for days. These stories dredge the depths of emotion to an almost primal level, but I think these two lines do it with elegant perfection:
Every night I fantasized: Moira, dark in my bed, all warm coffee skin and shadowy places; flare of hip, curve of shoulder, weight of breasts; fingers in thick raven hair, a tongue on wet lips. Sweat, breath, and animal cries. What would it be like, pushing deep and hot inside that moist place of spirit and untamed foreign femaleness, looking into those bottomless eyes in a total melting?
All things built, once destroyed, leave their imprint forever, ghost shapes that linger in the gaps, made of quarks and neutrinos and photons, everywhere, like the memory of water that hides in ice, like the possibility of ice that hides in water.
On a final note: I read a lot of short stories, studied them exclusively for a while. I didn’t rate this book higher because I didn’t find it quite as edgy as say Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son. Mr. Robison has the capacity to get that edgy, I did read some of his online offerings before I agreed to review the book. My preference is for a little deeper and a whole lot darker, but that’s just me. In this collection, the author kept things a bit restrained, except for the vignette “Meeting Moira.” Now that was more my kind of walk in the woods, where we tread into very dark and very dangerous territory. The psychology of need is frightening, indeed. Even so, I loved this book, and anyone who likes subtle, thought-provoking short fiction will enjoy this.
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