The Love That Loves to Love

Three debut collections of short stories question our terms of endearment

 

In Circling the Drain (Weisbach/Morrow), Amanda Davis tells stories about people caught in one last spin around life's sinkhole. These romantically fatalistic folks are not just moony adolescents: Fate, by any standard, has been cruel to these characters. They mourn the loss of loved ones to madness, old age, and a plane crash. As a result, the stories have a dirgelike quality, plodding toward their conclusions with a solemn beauty.

In "Prints," a girl discovers her abducted sister's grisly true fate in a cottage basement. In "Testimony," a girl tells how her charming older brother Jack--once accepted into Harvard and by all appearances normal--descends into madness and kills himself. Like the character in "Prints," this narrator begins to think of her sibling, or his memory, as a sort of muse: "I trusted Jack with my future. He was ahead of me by eight years, so I felt certain he would get there first, would tell me how it all turned out." To punctuate this desperation, Davis has her character look to the doomsday fanatics of the Internet for wisdom: "I wanted words, a voice, something, and I quickly became addicted to other people's prophecies....[I]n the gray light of my bedroom, the green glow of my computer, they felt intimate and familiar." Struggling to make sense of their losses, Davis's characters often wind up looking for salvation in all the wrong places.

As a result of this displacement, some of the book's figures lose themselves in woe. "We're just a shadow play of what we once were, ghosts, floating here or there," says the narrator of "Ending Things" as she breaks off with her lover. And in the brilliant "Faith or Tips for the Successful Young Lady," a girl recovering from a suicide attempt battles the ghost of her former self--a mashed-potato-eating, M&M-popping blimp of a girl. In the end, she banishes her ghost by confronting what she has wanted all along--acceptance from the boys who brought her to the brink of suicide.

While these stories show the pitfalls of losing oneself to love (or self-hatred) the collection's one uplifting story "The Very Moment There About" captures the subtle undercurrent of hope that runs through Circling the Drain, as well as the other two collections. This brief story recalls "the last song of the last dance on the second-to-last-night of camp." Two unnamed characters dance as the light fades and counselors break them apart: "[T]hey are both careful and conscious to close their eyes as they lean into each other, unsure of what lies around the next curve, unsure of the very moment they are about to devour." Making that risky next step, these authors seem to say, requires a little humor and some bravery, but it can be done.

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