After a month of reading and listening only fitfully and irritably, this week I found I could lose myself again in a book. And what a surprising one the first book turned out to be: A book of short stories set in a variety of circumstances that had misery in common. And yet the artistry made it possible to focus on the stories. As always it’s unclear how to describe a book of short stories; though each one demands to be written about, that doesn’t necessarily capture the essence.
The first story illustrates the style of the whole in one aspect: much is left unclear and uncertain. If the story were a woven blanket, it would be one with a very open weave. Here’s a description of an encounter with an old friend that comes near the beginning of one story:
I was trying to recall the last time I had seen him or heard his voice. How long it had been. He had spoken to me in Russian. I wondered what he had been doing out here. It was quickly growing dark. And cold. He seemed tired but restless. There was no one else, not in the field or on the road.
While the implication of many of these short sentences never became clear to me, I was mesmerized by the cadences, the words, the implied messages.
The stories are set in such different locations and time as upstate New York before World War I, Calais, then southwestern France in the aftermath of World War II, Korea and China in the 1960s, Russia near Vladivostok. In two cases a man and woman from different countries meet and are connected by having a child. It seems that the accident of location is not so important; our stories don’t depend on where we are. The first stories are set at an earlier time and the last one is contemporary and while the “weave” is tighter, still, mysteries abound.
In most of the stories the characters are at the mercy of one variety of misery or another. Reading about these characters and their various circumstances as we confront the changes in our lives now reminds us that the control we believe we have over our circumstances is illusory.
A young woman who returned to the area in China where she had grown up tells about making her way to a very familiar spot:
She went over to the wooden sign on the riverbank and sat on an old tree trunk, facing the high mountain, trying to remember. Twelve years ago. She wondered if that was a long time or not. She couldn’t say. She was no longer sure what a long time meant, only that there were things she remembered and things she had forgotten and she didn’t know why that happened.
Perhaps more of us can relate to this feeling now.
Paul Yoon, The Mountain, Simon & Schuster, 2017, 239 pages. Available at the UVa and public libraries and from Amazon.