Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It/Maile Meloy: Reflections

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Though there was a period of time when I wrote and published short stories (in literary magazines like Alaska Quarterly Review or Sonora Review or International Quarterly), I never fooled myself into thinking I'd mastered the form.  In short stories big things (or ideas or discoveries or defeats) happen in small spaces; back story is many times a trick of innuendo; there's no The Passage-sized lean toward what is really going to happen.  Writers of short fiction have no veils behind which to hide.  The stories must leap, the dialogue must spark, the concluding lines must hit with the force of (good) poetry.

I've had an intense and welcome time, therefore, reading Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It, Maile Meloy's national bestselling collection of eleven short stories.  Many of Meloy's characters are hardcore ambivalents, perfectly represented by or reflected in the words of the A.R. Ammons poem from which the collection's title is taken.  She gives us brothers who feud and perhaps hate each other, and yet cannot let each other go; lovers who don't love so much as need; near romance lanced by fateful uncertainty; tragedy muted only by recusal.  Many of these stories take place against big skies or in lonesome territory, at the top of mountains, or in the chambers of a hotel.  They give us people who talk like people who likely exist, but we (or at least I) have not met them before.

I have friends who teach dialogue at universities.  The dialogue in Meloy's stories should be taught.  A line or two, and we know who these characters are, we know what version of the truth they are stalking, we know whether or not they'll be able to convince or satisfy themselves.  Big things are at stake; small moments, often, reveal them.  And in those stories in which more familiar tragedies have occurred (the rape and murder, for example, of the protagonist's daughter in "The Girlfriend"), Meloy contorts the familiar idea of the story line, crafting characters haunted and chilled.

With the exception of perhaps one or two entries (I was not a fan, for example, of the somewhat supernatural "Liliana"), Meloy's stories aren't just wonderful individually; they are bound thematically, they equal more than their sum.  This says something, I think, about Meloy's purity as an artist—her willingness and ability to write toward the vast unspeakable and return with the remarkably well said.


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