A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Self upon self, a pile of selves I stand says Norman McCaig in the poem Summer Farm and his shrewd observation that we consist not just of the person we are now but also of all the other people we have been contains another truth. Piles are unstable and like mountainsides after heavy snow or rain, liable to collapse; often without warning.
The people in Kathy Flann’s stories are like those overburdened slopes, layered with the emotional baggage of past events. We meet them at the exact point when the fragile bonds between their various psychological parts comes under sudden pressure. The son of a disabled woman decides to marry. An advertising executive loses his laptop when his car is stolen. A woman turns forty and is forced to admit her attraction to a much younger man. Events pile up, one after another and quite often in these stories people get hurt in the minor way we injure ourselves when we’re scrabbling to deal with our inner avalanches. Flann uses these small mishaps to great effect, especially in Homecoming, where history teacher Ned, yearning for his former wife who divorced him after his affair, falls off his road bike and neglects to have his injured knee treated. His leg becomes infected, swelling to twice its size as if it’s polluted with the emotions Ned can’t express, particularly his regret and confusion at how and why he destroyed his marriage. The creeping sense of discomfort this story gave me, as the poison spreads and Ned refuses to acknowledge his approaching physical collapse, speaks to Flann’s quiet yet merciless gifts. Sometimes the injury is only implied. In Leaving Reno, Fiona, a single mother with niggling doubts about her parenting skills rails against the inadequacies of her own upbringing. She gives up the search for her teenage son, who has absconded in a fit of emo rage, to attend the prizegiving for an essay competition, in which she has a top ten entry. The subject for her essay? A conversation between the stump left after an amputation and the prosthetic into which it must now fit.
And even as the layers start to slide, Flann finds gentle if biting humour in the imminent disaster. In this excerpt, Fiona meets her much-divorced mother Shirlene at the airport:
‘“Look at you,” her mother said, pushing free. “You poor thing, you look awful.”
At moments like this, Fiona remembered that comets were giant fireballs that could incinerate you on contact.’
The setting for the stories is Baltimore, where Flann lives and works. I’ve never visited, but know the city vicariously, through news headlines and the updates of friends. It too has its layers and tensions and this adds to the tectonic sense of uncertainty that permeates each narrative. Flann gives us no easy answers. She leaves each story as the cracks appear, leaving us to decide if the land will slide or if those whose internal architecture is crumbling will find a way to hold it together and get a grip.