Wednesday, November 9, 2011

On "Girls in Trouble" by Douglas Light *****

I'm not a fan of Grace Paley, but I am a fan of this, a Grace Paley Prize winner. I've become familiar a bit with Light's work through stories of his that have been published online, most particularly those that found a home at Failbetter. Both of those stories are featured here in this book, and especially in the case of the second, "Breaking Up," I was reminded by just how phenomenal Light's writing can be. It's essentially a recounting of various breakups amid yet another attempt to find a girlfriend--hilarious, clever, fun.

That's not to say that all of Light's stories are light. Many of them are far from such. "Orphans" ventures into the dark territory of a girl sexually abused by an uncle who may or may not have actually been related to her and who now is storming back into her life in the form of an inheritance she has been handed.

"Zebra" is one of my favorite of the darker stories in Light's first story collection. The tale recounts the life of a girl adopted by a family of another race. The word "Zebra" itself takes on so many meanings here that Light's story is one that would lend itself fairly easily to teaching. There's, of course, the idea of black and white mixed (and yet contrasted) on one creature as it is mixed in this one family. The reason, as Light notes, for this feature on a "Zebra," is that when the animals are together, it is not easy for them to be preyed upon; predators can't pick out any single one from the pack because of the coloration. But when one is alone, the pickings are, of course, easy to the extreme. And in this family, struggling to stay together, one gets the sense that their survival as individuals depends on their finding some way to continue to exist as a group. Or one could read it as the opposite, that the girl here, pulled from the community in which she has been raised, is now on the verge of some kind of greater danger among kin who are not her kin.

Some of Light's most powerful stories build on small details, using them for multiple effect. In "Orient," for example, Light recounts the tale of a woman who dates a man who has a fascination with an ancient map that places the Orient in the center of the world. It is, as the man states, the reason that part of the world has its name--the center orients us to all the other things in the world. The point hits hard as the story moves forward, with the girl, who is already lost, working harder and harder to find where she belongs. "Separate" is about another lost person, this one a man whose divorce has set him adrift in New York City and who realizes that he never knew love.

"Three Days. A Month. More." is a tale that made quite a few fans when it first appeared in the Alaska Quarterly Review. It's a story much like the others in that it involves women adrift, this time a thirteen- and eleven-year-old whose mother has disappeared and who now live alone in an apartment with a boyfriend of sorts who the two curious girls compete for.

"Animals" is a fragmentary piece that works extremely well in the composite. It's essentially a set of sensational stories involving violence. Each piece on its own is interesting, but what's fantastic is how Light manages eventually to weave them all together.

Light's stories go down easy. On the whole, I found the longer ones more to my taste, but that's not to say that the longer ones are long. None of the stories go more than twenty pages, and most stick to around ten. The stories are fun to read, and as a writer, I found them fun to watch see being put together one word and sentence at a time. Light makes it look easy.

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