People are missing from Jeffrey Condran’s newest book. It’s a significant number of people: Most of the ten stories in this collection center on a protagonist who has been abandoned by someone close to them. Circumstances change; the absentee character might be a father, lover, coworker, wife, or child. The result inevitably is the same. Someone has been left behind and must pick up the pieces of a shattered life.
Though the stories are a series of small, private purgatories, the book retains a buoyancy in its tone. Condran is a benevolent creator. He doesn’t permit his most vulnerable characters to flounder entirely alone. Graceful gestures keep hope afloat. A grieving father is visited by a concerned neighbor who brings him a thermos of chicken soup. An emotionally troubled girl, recently released from psychiatric in-patient care, is wooed by a delivery van driver with gifts of chocolate cupcakes.
This is a book for connoisseurs of the well-told tale. Condran is not honing a flashy experimental technique or arguing a social agenda. He’s taking a look at how dependent people are on social involvement and how fragile relationships can be. Condran creates continuity by arranging the stories, often in pairs, illuminating contrasts of personalities and choices, a technique reminiscent of Raymond Carver’s seminal collection Cathedral. A hesitant hedonist (“In Costume”) is weighed against a bon vivant (“Death of the Writer”); a narrative of breakup (“Clare, Wading into the Danube at Night”) is balanced by one of reconciliation (“Geppetto’s Workshop”). Like the facets of a gemstone, the stories share boundaries, but each flashes with its own inner fire.
Condran is a shrewd writer; he eases the reader into situations of emotional upheaval rather than opening in the middle of dramatic confrontations. The tales begin like the chatty, gossiping revelations of a visiting friend. “Black Dog” ambles along in its opening paragraphs in parallel to the walk in the woods it describes:
The question that he asked himself most often was why a boy following his dog into the woods had to be a tragedy? It might have been an adventure. . . But the dog had been found and the boy had not.
As we do in life, characters go about their daily business without any warning of impending danger, until the fabric of daily routine unravels from a rift that went unnoticed:
…he and the clerk were engaged in a polite choreography, one in which deviating from the steps just made everyone feel foolish. (“Geppetto’s Workshop”)
Anchoring the first half of the volume are three consecutive tales of romantic betrayal: the domestic violence story “At Mt. Kineo,” the workplace love triangle in “Salt of the Earth,” and the torrid May-September romance in “Brigadoon.” While Condran allows all of his characters moments of dignity, he doesn’t excuse or apologize for them in their moments of pettiness.
In this section, which is the most pessimistic of the book, the act of two people coming apart becomes a form of performance art. This is abandonment described in the Dionysian sense, self-abandonment; a need for control expressed through a loss of control, through physical or emotional excess.
…in a series of movements that later will strike them all as almost elegant, Robert picks up an empty champagne bottle in each hand, cocks them back nearly to his ears, and throws them with surprising precision to break against the stone fireplace… (“At Mt. Kineo”)
Readers who know the novels of John Updike may be reminded, at this point, of that other skillful Pennsylvania writer. Updike was noted for his unblinking, detached observation of the little cruelties intimate couples inflict on each other, and his scalpel-sharp descriptions.
However, it’s James Salter that Condran has mentioned in interviews as his major literary influence. Salter was a contemporary of the troika of writers David Foster Wallace dubbed the “Great Male Narcissists”: the novelists Norman Mailer, Updike, and Phillip Roth. Though Salter was less prolific, less autobiographical, and less well-known to the public than the others, he resembled them in verbal gifts. Salter was, and still is, much admired by other authors and critically praised for his style and craftsmanship.
Condran has in common with Salter the eye for an unusual detail, the feel for a surprising turn, the confidence in pacing, the gradual unwinding of backstory. He has avoided Salter’s occasional eccentricities of narrative structure, and the overreliance on the masculine gaze for which Salter and his contemporaries were criticized. Condran’s female characters are not always likable, but they are self-directed, pursuing independent goals, thinking independent thoughts.
In looking at stories from the two authors side-by-side, Condran’s world is warmer, and more livable. Both Salter and Condran explore the erosion of interpersonal bonds , but Salter’s vision is cynical; his characters, emotionally emptier. Salter likes to feature unreliable protagonists, a father whose alcoholic hallucinations disturb his family (“Akhnilo,” in the collection Dusk) and a terminally wife who possibly fakes her own suicide to catch her spouse in an infidelity. (“Last Night,” in the collection of the same title.) Condran’s portraits of sensitive naifs encountering disappointment and alienation are almost pastoral in comparison. Condran more often follows the character who has fallen from grace than the one who ventures into Terra Incognita.
There are depths to this book which won’t register immediately. Condran has said he wrote with a motif of mirrors in mind, of picturing relationships as a form of mirroring transaction, and indeed the surface level of this polished volume features many examples of the motif. Water is also a recognizable coordinating thread. A reader accepts, with a title like this, that each tale will have a sea, a river, or a strategically placed water glass; that octopus and sturgeon will be on the restaurant menus, and a charismatic speaker will carry an audience along “on the wave of his personality.” Though it seemed occasionally there was a slight tendency toward overemphasis—as in the inclusion of a fuzzily symbolic clock with hands that “move like they’re submerged in lake water”—at other times the references are brilliantly subtle. There is an apt use of T.S. Eliot’s objective correlative in a hazy Luc Tuymans painting that signals its owner’s expensive taste as well as her nebulous ethics; and there’s a wry, pragmatic humor that emerges in the way a vacationing boater keeps a beer bottle opener tied on a string inside the pocket of his swim trunks, for easy access.
The book as a whole is about what happens when a reflection breaks, when the thirst-relieving water of intimacy is removed; it’s about coping with externally imposed solitude. To reconcile this with the motifs one needs to turn from nuances to the larger themes.
Condran’s opening epigram is from Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Reverie, and a long quote from The Poetics of Space is included in the story “Salt of the Earth.” Bachelard’s theoretical territory is how houses and buildings mold the identities of people who inhabit them, a theory he calls topoanalysis; and further, how imagination, as an internal space, shapes external perception and augments reality.
Condran’s sympathy with this perspective emerges in how the spaces of the stories help define the narratives. Many key scenes occur indoors, as if the characters required the embrace of walls to feel secure. In the title story a traveler searching for his runaway girlfriend yearns for such a protected space:
At some point the mind exhausts itself against the unknowable, and so I have sought out on this train even the most obscure possibilities that Slovakia has to offer . . . My guidebook tells me there are caves there, caves the way Italy has churches. (“Claire, Wading Into the Danube at Night”)
Home, or the workplace, is a container organizing and binding the unsorted inventory of unexamined lives. Frequently, it’s when characters venture outdoors—into the woods, onto a lake, across a bridge—that relationships dissolve, that crisis strikes. Though this trope seems particularly relevant today, all the stories were written pre-pandemic. It’s as much the act of moving outside of one’s psychic comfort zone that Condran is examining, as it is a movement across geography.
I felt some reservations about the title story, which is the one that involves the greatest distance of travel, from Boston to Eastern Europe. It’s a minor quibble to have, but this story closes the volume, occupying a position that implies it is the summation; and it gave me long hours of pause puzzling out why the narrative felt incomplete. The key image in the story is a Soviet-era mural of a Sputnik satellite. I found the passage abrupt and at odds with the rest of the book’s fluid, organic imagery. While the transit of an orbiting object is acceptable as a metaphor for the absent lover, it seemed too convenient, it didn’t resonate; the image was denotive but not connotative—or to use the language in which Roland Barthes describes photography, there was puntum, a visual focal point, but not stadium, the personal or cultural context.
I considered the image might be intended to function like the static freeze frame at the end of a motion picture, a visual halt to the shifting and liminal surfaces that ripple through the earlier stories. I wondered if there might have been some intended intertextuality to Salter’s story “Comet.” Either way the woven cloth of the narrative didn’t seem wide enough to encompass the object.
Much later I stumbled across an online discussion of Svetlana Boym’s The Future of Nostalgia, which helped reconcile the last of the pieces with the rest. Boym’s concept of nostalgia encompasses place, national identity, and culture, and at the same time transcends them. She imagines Dostoyevsky and Mickey Mouse, representatives of vastly different literatures, meeting on an imaginary border and exchanging a wry smile. Condran, too, has made clever use of the mutable materiality of the icons of pop culture. He invokes the movie Pinocchio through a neon advertising sign of a cricket, and riffs on the canonization of Jane Austen by showing the calculated business sense lurking behind the frilly décor of an Austen-themed fundraising dinner.
Reconsidering the book in the light of Boym’s ideas, I find Condran has indeed established episodes of longing and desire for return to the past, or what Boym calls restorative nostalgia. While the characters ache to reassemble their pre-lapsarian lives, a path back to Eden is impossible to find; and most of them struggle to achieve the antidote Boym proffers, a reflective nostalgia that acknowledges feelings of loss while incorporating a new reality.
Condran’s enthusiasts will be pleased with this new collection, and it should earn the author many new fans. A teacher of writing himself, Condran has produced a book that other writers almost certainly will esteem as a model for the modern story collection, given its eclectic variety and its juxtaposition of viscerality with sophisticated allusions. And its messages are well worth mulling over, when reading alone at night in a comfortable chair. Condran reminds us that while we live in a culture that tries to dazzle and entice us with novelty, it’s in the familiar that we find our shelter, and in meaningful moments when we finally connect emotionally with others.
Jeffrey Condran is the author of the story collection, A Fingerprint Repeated (Press 53). His debut novel, Prague Summer (Counterpoint), was published in August 2014 and received a 2015 Independent Publisher Book Award’s Silver Medal. His fiction has appeared in journals such as The Kenyon Review, The Missouri Review, and Epoch, and has been awarded the The Missouri Review’s 2010 William Peden Prize and Pushcart Prize nominations. He is an Associate Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and co-founder/publisher of the independent literary press, Braddock Avenue Books. His new story collection, Claire, Wading Into the Danube By Night, was published in Spring 2020.