Staff Book Reviewer Spencer Dew is the author of the forthcoming novel Maintain (Ampersand Books, 2012). A regular reviewer for Rain Taxi Review of Books, Dew is the author of Songs of Insurgency (Vagabond Press, 2008), Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (Another New Calligraphy, 2010), and the critical study Learning for Revolution: The Work of Kathy Acker (San Diego State University Press, 2011). His Web site is spencerdew.com.
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Consider the story “The Braid,” from this collection of stories about regret and change and loss and the ubiquity of unknowing, the ways our lives are characterized by contingency as well as by our own petty, squabbling egos, our own roiling desires, our own fears and sloth and sluggish ability to catch a clue. “The Braid,” starts out with a whiff of “the nearly perfect now extending toward the promising future,” as a wealthy, well-educated, well-built young man meets a matching sort of woman at a company picnic and finds himself “thoroughly enchanted by Sondra’s melodious voice and athletic figure and extroverted personality,” plus that braid. There is an effect here subtly achieved, worked via real craft, so that the reader feels a kind of daze, as if also in the summer sun at some picnic, contemplating, vaguely, eroticism, potential. And then, “instantly,” “with incredible force,” something happens, “the most fantastically horrifying thing.”
But this happens to the woman, this physical accident, this tearing open, this exposure of bone, etc.; while what happens to the man is his possible futures have been altered by this event. “All he could ever be to either of them now is the line between before and after, a reminder that everything comes apart eventually, if only to become something else.” As beautifully succinct as it is sympathetically solipsistic, this is the rational thought of a man contemplating a woman who is bleeding and in shock. We were told in the story’s first paragraph that “it can never be anything as simple as love at first sight,” but in the end we are left with a protagonist who, while confronting some existential epiphany about connections and loss and change and time and all those piled-up abstractions, remains in an essential way isolated from their visceral manifestations, a bystander, even a voyeur, clutching a souvenir of horror and feeling bad for himself because he’ll never have had the future he could have imagined himself innocently romping into mere minutes previously. He won’t get laid by the woman with “the tremendously thick Nordic braid”; instead, he’ll have a sense of loss for something that only maybe might have been.
There are points in this collection where the lyrical, concluding reflection on the gaping abyss of the future or the regretful wasteland of the past or the unbridgeable divide between people or the vertiginous expanse of time can come across as a little too lyrical, too pat: “We all have two faces, one of them unknown to those who love us. We’ve all slid a negative of ourselves beneath the picture we show to others,” ends a story wherein photographs and the negatives from which they are developed are central items and, thus, themes.
Mullins is strongest when he holds back on the conclusions, the revelatory flesh of awareness, or where, as with “The Braid,” that awareness is either incomplete or radically restricted to the self, alone. One story, for instance, ends with a man washing up in his own life, no longer young, “lost somewhere between drunk and sick . . . gnawed by the vague regret that there was something worth remembering he’d forgotten.” This is Mullins’s kill-shot: leaving the regret vague, the memory still more or less buried, the damage, while done, not yet recognized. In another story, a man is slow to understand that the prostitute in his car really doesn’t care about the demo tape of his kid brother’s band. It is a cringe-inducing moment, beautifully constructed by Mullins.
People trapped in misunderstanding, speaking past each other, stuck in their own pasts or, like the man in “The Braid” already lost in an imagined future: Mullins gets this, and hits these points, here, again and again. A couple consumed by “pointless jockeying over who’s right. All this dissection of who said what and exactly what they meant” take a trip to New Orleans in a story that is haunting, like “The Braid,” not because of the dramatic, violent action that takes place within it but, rather, the withdrawn, internal reflection of a character untouched by that violence, a woman watching her lover stumble down the street, thinking that he “is the last person she wants to be with right now.” Cringe-inducing, her thoughts here, her resentment, her anger: but pitch-perfect, the way these feelings are conveyed.
Official Matt Mullins Web Site
Official Atticus Books Web Site