Internet presence is unpredictable. Lately, Viking/ Penguin has been sending me some of their books to review. I have no idea how this came my way but I feel all professorial/uppity about it. This month, they sent me Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles by Ron Currie, Jr. and a book of short stories by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya.
When I looked at the first page of Currie’s book I was standing in the doorway between the sunroom and the kitchen munching a piece of bacon. (Yes, I bought bacon, I cooked bacon, I ate bacon.) Janet Maslin (N.Y.Times) had said of Mr. Currie “pays no heed to ordinary narrative convention” and I thought, Oh, good, something innovative with no traceable narrative thread; just what I need to take my mind off my weight.
The other review book they sent was from Russia's acclaimed contemporary fiction writer Ludmilla Petrushevskaya (referred to henceforth as LP) whose previous collection of short stories was titled: There Once Lived A Woman Who Tried To Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby.” I had the follow up: There Once Lived A Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband And He Hanged Himself. I knew this was the book I wanted to review. First of all - get this - the subtitle is “Love Stories.”
If nothing else, these titles parsed out in fairytale language send the message that we’re going to find out some truth about human nature and there’s going to be no fairytale about it. That’s the purpose of good fiction and LP doesn’t disappoint. It’s the opposite of the horrid sentimentality that imprisons some popular American fiction (except for Jennifer Egan and a few others). Petrushevskaya is telegraphing, we’re dark, so what? Get over it but let’s look at it. Let’s look at it in an allegorical way so you won’t be freaked out.
The stories are short. They are about society’s losers who are trying to get a foothold in love. They are narrated simply without much dialogue and without any emotional prompting by the author. Here’s what happened, I don’t care how you feel about it. They are set in Russia where privacy and a place to live are everyday difficulties. Lovers are homely or they have diabetes and they live with their mothers. Existences are mostly meager. If one is foolishly daydreaming of the return of a one-night stand it is less hurtful than the eventual breakdown of a real romance.
American Beauty comes to mind. And a fabulous film The Details that is so dark, so true, so beguiling that we breathe a sigh of relief that our black marks are small.
The Goddess Parka, one of the more optimistic stories ends in a hook-up that barely happens and only through very fragile connections - but isn’t that always the way? LC uses supernatural intervention with as much ease as she uses the macabre because she’s a humanist at heart although the nightmarish aspect of some of the stories makes us blink, look away and ponder a minute.
Despite its Russian origins and the literary tradition that produced Dostoyevsky, the stories are easy to read and leave us with a lot to mull over.