Thursday, July 21, 2011

On "Babylon and Other Stories" by Alix Ohlin ****

Most story collections, outside of omnibus collections by well-established authors, consist of eight to ten pieces, unless the pieces are almost entirely flash fiction. But Ohlin's first collection features a robust seventeen, and not a one of them feels like filler. This is a voice that is assured and confident. At the end of each story, I felt like she'd done something so well that she'd make it look easy. And in that is perhaps also a problem--it would be easy to discount Ohlin's stories because they do seem to fall so effortlessly onto the page. I assume they don't.

Another issue is that it's hard to pick highlights from a collection that is uniformly good--uniformly very, very, very good. Babylon and Other Stories, at least for me, doesn't have any incredible stand-outs the way that Denis Johnson's Jesus' Son does. In that collection, I found myself so awed by "Emergency" and "Car Crash While Hitchhiking" that the other stories paled in comparison, and I didn't realize just how amazing the rest of that collection was until I read some of those stories outside of the collection's context, on their own, among other people's stories. No longer washed out by stories that are absolute classics, the other pieces could show their bright shine of their own. I feel like in Ohlin's collection, we have seventeen of those brightly shining pieces, all shining uniformly, but not a one bloated star in its last hurrah before death.

Nevertheless, I will try to hit some highlights. As is typical of story collections, the first story itself is memorable. Called "The King of Kohlrabi," it is about a teenager whose father leaves the family for another woman one summer; left to support themselves, the daughter takes a job only to find her mom becoming attached to her new boss. "Babylon," the title story, considers a man who falls in love with a woman who turns out to have more problems than initially appears (I'm being deliberately vague so as not to ruin it for those who might want to read the wonderful story). "The Tennis Partner," one I just read today and why it probably sits so well in my head, regards a teen in love with a girl who is above his league and a father whose attempts to win the girl's father at tennis are miserably ineffectual.

Other stories consider a kid who takes up piano lesson to escape troubles at home even though his family can't afford a piano for him to practice on ("Simple Exercises for the Beginning Student"), a girl who pretends to be French when she becomes a freshman in college ("You Are Here"), a couple who rents a house from a landlord that won't stay away ("Wonders Never Cease"), a story with a very effective use of flash forward at its end ("Meeting Uncle Bob"), and a copyeditor who writes a novel for an author ("Ghostwriting"). Also in the collection is "I Love to Dance at Weddings," available also online and which I reviewed here. In fact, it was reading two of Ohlin's stories online that drew me to her first collection; I will likely at some point follow it up with her other collection and possibly her novel. She is that good.

What unifies this collection beyond the simple fact that the stories are all of quality was at first hard for me to say. This isn't some cycle with an easily stereographed theme or unifying device, and yet, I do think that the collection does have a kind of unity. The title of the title story is a big clue here (backed up with the ending of the final story in the collection). It seems that each of these pieces regards people who are dealing with a situation that is confusing--such as the name "Babylon" suggests--confusing to the extent that they are overwhelmed and often are drawn toward violence and more often toward their own imagination as a means of coping.

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