Tuesday, January 25, 2011

On "The Other Side" by E. Thomas Finan ***

E. Thomas Finan's debut collection of short stories is a work whose title is aptly given. Six of the seven stories very clearly revolve around people at transitional points in their lives, as they move from "one side" to the "other." In a sense, most short stories work this way, providing us with a glimpse into a life that is undergoing some kind of transformation at the time when the chrysalis is about to break open, but in Finan's work, that moment seems to be almost at the forefront.

The strongest story in this collection is the first, "Lucy di Sartoria." It is about art--and about character. We look at a painting and we see, what? We see lines and shadows, oil on a canvas. Perhaps, we see a set of awards. We use the painting to prop up our own self. But what's underneath, we don't face. It's just a picture. And so it is with the people in our lives, the ones we collect as a means to show how wonderful we are to others. Lucy, a model, her husband, Drew, a painter, are, through a loss of interest in the worlds in which they are successful about to find out what exists under the paint--they're about to discover their true selves. It's an interesting piece in that most stories about infidelity lean toward a different set of conclusions, whereas here the troubles in the marriage seem a harbinger to some kind of grander concept of just what partnership means.

The second story (and arguably the second most successful), "Motley Black," is a curious one. The narrator is very well drawn--and fairly unlikable, at least to start. He's a pretentious bore, a young guy who wears black and looks out on a world in misery, though seemingly inexperienced at it for the most part. The tale takes place on a bus (that such a man would ride a bus can only be believed in that he is also a kind of bohemian, living off a small fortune that he has to be very careful with). All he wants to do is read. All the people beside him want to do is talk. (I have the same quandary on transportation, since I have a desire to do both--and I find myself both annoyed and thrilled when I fall into conversation with the passenger beside me.) In the course of the tale, while the narrator continues with the same "hate the world/all is misery" tone, we see him slowly take to a particular passenger. It's a subtle transformation insofar as the narrator doesn't really, outwardly seem to transform at all.

The title story--"The Other Side"--and "Billy Stevens Is 28" would likely come next in my list of favorite pieces. "The Other Side" focuses on a woman whose headaches seem to be leading her toward insanity, as she comes to believe that the house in which she is living is haunted, or as she discovers, something else may be going on entirely. "Billy Stevens Is 28" is a tale of a man, ten years out of high school, discovering that his life doesn't seem to be going anywhere. It is an easy and enjoyable read though utterly predictable in terms of the way that the kind of seize the day notions are revealed.

"The Tie That Binds" is an ensemble story--no central character, unless you count a building or an organization as the center, which indeed is what the story revolves around. Here, the move to the other side is one of a church building from its function as a church to its function as a museum. The few remaining parishioners, all moving toward the close of their lives, prepare the church for its transformation, even as they likely are making the same kind of transformations in their personal lives.

The two shorter pieces, "Dunes like White Elephants" and "An Aria of Windows," I found to be less successful. The former is an obvious play off of Hemingway's famous story (in which "Hills" replaces "Dunes" in the title) and reads like a successful writing exercise but didn't, for me, offer much in the way of new insights into the original story or its themes. "An Aria" is about a man who obsesses over a wrong number message he receives on the phone--an idea with great potential but also an idea that would be difficult to pull off in a believable way. I had a hard time understanding how or why the narrator had become so obsessed with the call, except on some kind of teleological level, which was not enough for me.

Finan's prose is generally easy, trending toward the philosophical. He is obviously interested in big ideas. At its most successful, the collection transforms these big ideas into something concrete--sometimes, poking fun at its own obsession, as in "Motley Black." That the first story, "Lucy," especially appears not to have found a home in some kind of journal, previous to publication in the book, is surprising. Finan is a writer who we probably will see more from and whose work is likely to become better with time; this first effort already shows what he is capable of, and it is exciting to see. You can read passages from Finan's book here.

The book is the first one published by Fieldnor Press, a new independent publisher. The design of the book is very nice--easy to read and professional in feel. I am particularly enamored by the choice of font on the interior and by the use of color--or rather nonuse--on the cover. Black-and-white has never before been so visually arresting. I thank the press for giving me the opportunity to read Finan's work.

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