This Will Be Difficult to Explain and Other Stories/Johanna Skibsrud: Reflections

Saturday, January 14, 2012

It had entered the realm of the absurd:  I had been carrying Johanna Skibsrud's collection of nine short stories with me everywhere I went. This Will Be Difficult to Explain was so slender, after all, and had arrived unbidden from W.W. Norton.  I didn't know this author, but I was intrigued.  Consider the comparators: Alice Munro and Marilynne Robinson.  Nicole Krauss, even.

The book traveled on the train, to client offices, to Body Combat, to ballroom dance, to the library, and in the passenger seat of the car, just for the apparent heck of it.  Meanwhile, weeks of inane insanity went by—a battle cry of must-do-right-now's.  I had carved out this very afternoon to work on my own Berlin book.  Time, at last, I thought, to advance my novel forward.  And then I decided:  It's now or never for Difficult.  I curled up beneath my patchwork quilt and read.

How very odd, I thought, as I sunk in with Skibsrud.  How delightfully odd.  Not Munro, for the stories aren't nearly that domestic, that relational.  And not Robinson nor Krauss, for the language here is not their kind of lush (I am thinking of early Robinson as I write, Housekeeping Robinson, and I am thinking of all of Krauss). These are stories advanced by oppositions—by things presumed, recanted, tested, withdrawn.  These are characters who want to know things, but, frankly, they often don't.  They want to declare, but is such declaration wise, or honest?  They want to describe, or even understand, but they are missing the words, the signals.

What might have been a series of straight-on tales—about a divorced father seeing his thirteen-year-old daughter for the first time in eight months, about a young maid catering to a strange man in France, about a blind woman speaking French to her English-languaged helpmate, about one ancient Clarence and the young journalist who sets out to interview him—becomes instead a play (and there is play) of juxtapositions.

The stories grew on me, the point of view.  The aperçus I didn't see coming.  The Timothy Schaffert (The Coffins of Little Hope) oddness of, say the title story or "Clarence."  The eloquent stumble toward truth, a la Robin Black (If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This) in a story such as "Signac's Boats." The stories grew on me, and not just a little.  I liked this Johanna Skibsrud.

I'm going to close with the final paragraph of a story I loved.  Tell me what you think.  I'm behind again on my Berlin book.  But I'm glad I took the detour.

From "The Limit":
He knows that on the East Coast and on the West, there is the imposition, always, of objects on other objects.  The sky is interrupted by the hills, the hills by the trees, the trees by more hills, and houses, and so on.  But out here, in the middle, it's possible to find a section of the road to look out at and not see anything for miles.  It is possible just to see and see until it gets hazy and you can't see anymore—and even at that point, at the point where you stop being able to see any longer, it's not because what's out there is covered up by anything, it's just—that's the limit.


Wendy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Wendy said...

I made here it is corrected:

I like the passage you chose to quote, Beth - I have often thought about the idea of looking into the distance. On the east coast, where I grew up, it was so limited because the hills are small, the trees brushy, the houses tall (in Maine I lived in a three story house which was not unusual for the area) vision goes farther out here in the west where mountains soar so high in the far distance and fields stretch out and houses squat on the edge of cliffs. Even still, there is a limit, eventually, to how far we can see...and it is a bit of metaphor, is it not, for the way life is? Thanks for sharing this little excerpt...

Lilian Nattel said...

I'm glad you took to another Canadian writer.

  © Blogger templates Newspaper II by 2008

Back to TOP