Friday, September 21, 2012

Shifting Landscapes and Beautiful Hybrids: The Stories of Ben Loory

Imagine The Metamorphosis with a happy ending. Instead of withering into some shell of a bug, the monstrous vermin grew wings and flew away from the sordid house of petty desires and found his true tribe. Ben Loory’s Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day rides this wave of the fantastic and the eerie, the strange and familiar. It’s as if Franz Kafka and Mary Poppins had a love child—and if that statement right there made you shudder with delight as much as with bewilderment, then this is book for you.

The fables are short and sparse, chronicling the adventures of an octopus who collects spoons or a duck who falls in love with a rock. You don’t think you should care about such things. But after reading story upon story, Loory’s sense of wonder begins to chip away at your cynicism and love of irony. The automaton in “Hadley” is able to shake the foundations of a prison and its corrupt warden, and in some really bizarre turn of events, I found myself wondering what would happen if the Muppets had taken over The Shawshank Redemption.

And that is what good stories are supposed to do—they are not self-contained worlds that begin and end the story for the reader. Rather, a good story stretches your imagination, makes it move in all sorts of unexpected directions. And the fantastic is an especially rigorous obstacle course to maneuver as you try to understand the rules of the narrative, since that aesthetic often collapses the real and unreal in such shocking ways, you have no time to process it while still, the story moves on.

Loory’s gift is, in fact, the ability to transform what seems to be the simple into pieces of great depth and beauty. Rather than relying on verbal pyrotechnics, Loory has an incredibly stripped down style, as if he has pared away everything – syllable and sentence – that is unnecessary, and presented the essence of the stories, pure and uncluttered. This clarity of story translates into their emotional impact as well. The stories may be sweet, but they never edge over into saccharine. There are love stories, like “The House on the Cliff and the Sea,” that present love like clear glass, perfectly transparent. “The Snake in the Throat” is an unpulled gut-punch of horror.

Don’t be fooled by the flash-fiction length of some of the pieces—you’ll find yourself re-reading them to see what you missed and where the landscape shifted and cracked to give birth to these beautiful hybrids. You might also consider reading them aloud – hearing these stories increases their power, and makes them even more poignant. Either way, whether reading them in the nighttime, or in the day, these stories are not to be missed.

By Nancy Hightower, with an assist from Kat Howard