Monday, 18 June 2012

Digression: Books I'm Reviewing—Alix Ohlin's 'Signs and Wonders'

   The cover of Signs and Wonders reminds me of Blue Velvet, when Jeffrey and Sandy have returned from the seedy side of Lumberton and stand in the Technicolor safety of a kitchen and stare raptly outside at a bird. That the bird looks motley and mechanical and not at all pretty only adds to the surreal WTF of Lynch's vision.
   Lynchian, though, cannot be applied very well to the stories within Signs and Wonders. While surreal violence/violent surrealism and fragmentary narration remain foreign territory in Alix Ohlin's stories, the perverse resilience of love (and its adjuncts: marriage, divorce, parenthood) is a geography she visits again and again.
   Finishing the fifteen stories, I was tempted to conclude that Ohlin has witnessed a lot of relationships that ended badly—or, at least, has been carrying a notebook for years and recording her observations about flailing lovers, embittered divorcees, and parents struggling to hold together families that cosmic laws or the Fates seem to delight in tearing apart.
   All of the stories are impressive. The stand-outs for me are the title story, about English professors who've been unhappily married for ever. When they finally decide to proceed with a divorce, circumstance intervenes and holds them together. A terrific variation on that theme, "Three Little Maids," describes an already happily divorced couple—the narrator lists a few of the hundreds of  reasons for their incompatibility—whose grown children keep them in close contact, even though they cannot stand each other. In both stories an exceptional—and, for readers, funny—bitterness is part of the bond that holds people together, and Ohlin's expertise comes not in exploring their love but in their love-hate.
   Intact marriages, anatomized with precision in "Robbing the Cradle" and "You Are What You Like" recall that '80s song by Romeo Void, "love is an illness, to be endured"; the idea of love or marriage as a field of battle (no, I will not include two '80s references in one sentence) is nothing new, but between clever wordplay and her imagining of the unconscious, conflicted, and contradictory motivations of the characters, Ohlin manages a feat: revealing new facets about middle class love, marriage, and family—a topic we may have believed TV and myriad authors already exhausted.


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