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Nothing RightReview - Nothing Right
Short Stories
by Antonya Nelson
Bloomsbury USA, 2008
Review by Tony O'Brien
Nov 10th 2009 (Volume 13, Issue 46)

Antonya Nelson is an established writer who has published eight books of fiction including three novels. Her new collection Nothing Right comes highly recommended. According to the back cover notes Micheal Chabon envies the reader who is yet to discover her work and David Eggers is an another admirer. The apparent endorsement by Raymond Carver is a bit harder to fathom as Nelson's first book of short stories was published two years after Carver's death. It is likely, however, that Carver would find much to relish in Nothing Right. The characters are ordinary and believable, the situations are everyday but infused with conflict simmering just below the surface, the plots are driven by blend of character flaws and chance. The settings are the towns and cities of places like Kansas, Texas and Arizona, and for all the universal appeal of Nelson's writing, it has a distinctly regional flavor. The physical details, the descriptions of scenery, and the relationship between character and geography give these stories a strong sense of place. Each of the eleven stories is absorbing and compelling, with Nelson combining a deft use of language and observational skills to render her writing vivid and disconcertingly realistic.

The title story portrays the life of a fractious family whose members have long since gone their own ways. Mom Hannah and fifteen year old Leo remain together in name, but as the story opens it seems only a matter of time before Leo's budding criminal career will flourish and he too will be estranged. However an unlikely romance and an unplanned pregnancy exert a redeeming influence and allow Nelson to reveal more of her characters than would have been possible had they stuck to her initial script. There's a lot going on in this story, almost too much, and in the end it wasn't clear to me if it was Hannah's drinking, brother Justin's sullen homosexuality, or Leo's salvation from delinquency that was the main point of interest. It is perhaps a compliment to Nelson's storytelling that each strand of this story is equally intriguing.

Falsetto is a marvelously layered story of complex relationships between and across generations. Twenty nine year old twin Michelle is living in her eccentric parents' home with her much younger brother, and her current partner who, Michelle decides early in the story, she doesn't love. Nelson uses the various relationships to great narrative effect. Her writing in this story is a sort of literary Swiss army knife; there is a tool with which she can prise open all sorts of intimate crevices that would otherwise remain closed. The final image of the nine pole fence, a bare and rudimentary device sagging against enormity of its task, sustained by hope rather than its own innate strength nicely captures Nelson's themes of desire pitched against human frailties.

Nelson's female and male characters are equally well realized. There is little that escapes her noticing eye, and nothing so mundane that it can't be used. This is as true of the day to day lives of characters as it is of their emotional lives, and the result is that Nelson presents convincing portraits that leave her readers involved. Even when the characters are very different to ourselves we care about them, or at least feel we understand them. The morbidly obese Martha in People People is a good example. Obsessive, socially dysfunctional, and apparently indifferent to the effect she has on others' lives, Martha is nevertheless someone who readers can understand. Perhaps Eddie from the same story is an example of someone few readers will care about, but his irritatingly unfunny attempts at humor contribute to the story and at least his wife Elaine cares about him, or once did.

A feature of Nelsons' writing is the diversity of characters. Not many short stories give a significant role to children, but Nelson manages this with ease. There are young children, children of middle years whose knowing observations reveal more about their parents than the parents would want, and teenagers whose hormones and intense emotions make for a volatile mix. There are old people too, not just old, but with the infirmities of age that add their own piquancy to the complexities of their children's lives.

It's hard to pick a standout story in such a fine collection, but I'll go for Or Else. David is probably not what you would call a nice bloke, but Nelson crafts him empathically so that even at his most morally dubious he is a real person, not a type. He takes his latest girlfriend, Danielle, to what he misleadingly describes as the family home, a house in Telleride. He breaks in, and prepares for a brief sojourn. An unanticipated arrival brings with it more memories than the house alone would sustain, and Nelson drip feeds new information that changes the complexion of things again. As the story unfolds, more and more is revealed, especially of David's character. In the final scene David and Danielle, having left the house in a hurry, gaze in the lighted window as the real family prepare for a wedding. When Danielle asks David "do you wish you were in there, instead of out here?" he answers but then wonders if his answer is a lie. Readers are left with a man who can't decide if his deceptions are fundamentally dishonest, or if they represent a genuine moral entitlement.

With Nothing Right Antonya Nelson gives readers much to enjoy, and for those who have not encountered her work before, some catching up to do. These are stories of the highest quality.

 

© 2009 Tony O'Brien

 

Tony O'Brien is a short story writer, and lecturer in mental health nursing at the University of Auckland, New Zealand: a.obrien@auckland.ac.nz


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