The line of light marking the bottom of the locked door

Dear Lori,

Your short-story collection The Bigness of the World (2009, 2016) followed me throughout a very pleasant trip by bike I made last May.  I confess it was somewhat strange to be reading about your wandering characters, while I was myself wandering through some small towns in Germany.

lori ostlund

There is a pervasive melancholy in each of the stories collected here. The characters are always confronted with something they are about to lose. And yet this loss is presented to us as an inevitable rite of passage, something they have to go through. You are constantly pushing them to go ahead, towards small moments of illumination, where they light up like a spark (or are set ablaze), then burn on both sides, and, finally, they are put out with a blow. Your stories revolve around those quietly devastating moments of change.

My favourite story was “All Boy.” Harold is an eleven-year-old boy who loves to read. Even when his babysitter locks him in the closet, he doesn’t mind, and enjoys being left alone, reading by flashlight. He loves discovering new words and is fascinated by language, but is at the same time faced with the limits of communication, when he struggles to fit in and make friends at school. While the boy’s mother feels constantly compelled to assert his masculinity (“He is all boy”), Harold’s father gathers his strenght in order to fully assume his sexuality. When his father finally leaves the house to live with another man, Harold asks him if nobody would check the windows and doors before bedtime anymore. The boy is so terrified with this idea, that he longs to remain locked in the closet again.

I was touched by the way you counterposed the boy’s desperate desire to be locked in (in the dark, ignorant of the situation, protected against the need to accept and understand it) and his father’s struggle to get out of the closet (to go to the light and be understood). Harold prefers the comfort of a dark closet over the struggle to deal with the situation, to assert himself or even to simply try to make friends at school: “The thought of this filled him with terror, and as he stood there in the driveway watching his father leave, Harold found himself longing for the dark safety of the closet: the familiar smells of wet wool and vacuum cleaner dust, the far-off chatter of Mrs. Norman’s television shows, the line of light marking the bottom of the locked door, a line so thin that it made what lay on the other side seem, after all, like nothing.”

The idea that knowledge spoils innocence is explored in many of the stories. In “The Bigness of the World”,  the loss of innocence is equated with the loss of a babysitter, by two children (a brother and sister).  While leaving, Ilsa, their former nanny, insists that they need to understand “the bigness of the world”, because “there have been times in my life when the bigness of the world has been my only consolation”.  This small memory will be the siblings’ consolation, as they are about to be told by their father that their mother is in jail. As innocence bids farewell, the bigness of the world comes right in.

In “Upon Completion of Baldness”,  an English teacher finds that her girlfriend comes back entirely bald from a trip. As the teacher is incapable to ask her girlfriend why she has done such a thing, we are confronted here once again with one character’s fear that knowledge might spoil innocence. The shiny bald head seems to be the embodiment of the emotional estrangement between these two women, but the teacher doesn’t feel prepared to acknowledge yet that they have become strangers to each other.

“The Day You Were Born”, another of my favourite stories, centers around Annabel, a 9-year-old girl who has to cope with her father’s mental breakdown. The father insists that she should touch the scars on his wrists, and forces her to eat sardines with marshmallows as a test of how much she loves him, watching her closely: “(…) watching her chew and swallow and demonstrate her love in a way that she does not know how to do with words”.  The cruelty of the situation reaches its summit when the father tells her that the first time he tried to kill himself was the day she was born: “It was because I loved you so much, even before you were born, and I could feel how much you loved me. That’s why I did it”. We can almost listen as Annabel slowly breaks. The next day, when her father calls, she knows she will not answer the phone: “When the ringing finally stops nearly two hours later, she feels its absence like a sharp, sudden pain, but she understands now how it is: that this pain, this pain is how much she loves him.”

Each of the stories’ narrative wanders between different times and spaces, and the stories are told mostly in a fragmented way, going back and forth, as it happens when we are randomly remembering something. The settings vary between Spain, Malaysia, Java, New Mexico, Minnesota. Most of the characters are lesbians, and teachers, people who cannot connect with one another in any meaningful way, or disintegrating couples who go abroad to escape this same disintegration, which only follows them everywhere with its deep shadow. Many of the characters go to exotic places, only to finally find strangeness within themselves and their own home. Most of the main characters are obsessed with finding the right word, as if only through words they could to gain a sense of control over their lives, or could bridge the distance between themselves and their loved ones. Often enough, words fail altogether.

All of the stories deal with different forms of separation (from oneself, from the world, from one’s real intention or meaning…), which you manage to convey through small but resonant details. Your sly humor and sparse prose add a sense of displacement to the stories: your characters are constantly trying to escape from something they don’t fully comprehend. Those characters are both saved and damned by the bigness of the world, the inner geographies they find themselves caught inbetween. 

I know I’ll be rereading many of these sad lonely stories, my dear. Please do keep writing them.

Yours truly,

J.

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3 Comments Add yours

  1. Liz Dexter says:

    These sound amazing, and I hope the author gets to read your review, as I’m sure she’ll be touched by your exhortation to keep writing!

    Like

    1. juliana says:

      Thank you, Liz! 🙂 The stories are really touching. I’ll definitely be reading more of Ostlund’s work!

      Liked by 1 person

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