There’s a moment in Laura van den Berg’s story, “Still Life with Poppies,” where the main character, Juliana, checks her voicemail only to hear, “the faint static of breath, a low sound that deepened and shifted like wind.” Is it tension that grips Juliana, or is it terror? Sure the message could be a wrong number, but she won’t let her mind stop considering the possibilities.
What if it’s Frederick, an eleven-year-old student of hers who continues to draw gruesome pictures of his father being maimed? Has he found her number? Does he know where she is?
Or could it be Cole, the ex-boyfriend who brought her to Paris and vanished when his obsession with the social climate—riots and assaults on police, following the accidental death of two teens—caused him to shut down? Is he trying to reach out to her?
Meanwhile, Juliana is en route to the beach with Leon, a street performer and possible love interest, hoping for a day off from her scattered worries.
This fragment of a scene encompasses what each story in van den Berg’s first collection, What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us, accomplishes: emotionally compelling narrative, richly layered, told with precise and lyrical prose.
The characters in these stories have an unwillingness or inability to let go of their obsessions, stemming from a variety of reasons that include loss, sickness, death, and chaos. Their need to search for answers almost becomes more important than discovering the truth about what they’re searching for. They remain so adamant in their convictions that the people in their lives stop disregarding them, either in an attempt to avoid conflict or because they start believing their hype.
In the opening story, “Where We Must Be,” an out-of-work actress takes a job at a Big Foot-themed park. Lumbering around and dressed as a sasquatch, Jean provides clients the illusion that Big Foot exists, lunging out at them from behind the bushes, allowing them to take her picture in costume or shoot her with paint balls. She provides to people what they want to hold onto and believe in. She acts as a facilitator of hope to the park’s clients, as well as the people in her personal life.
Which appears to be a common theme throughout this book: characters wrestling with science and logic in the face of the mythical, the unexplainable. Two of van den Berg’s stories involve search efforts for underwater creatures. “Inverness,” follows a young botanist on her journey to find a rare flower, while a team of scientists pursues the Loch Ness Monster in hopes of disproving its existence. The narrator yearns to feel “the exhilaration, the sense of purpose,” that finding the flower should bring, fearing that the discovery may not live up to the expectation. Meanwhile, she connects with a local who’s assisting the scientists because he believes in Nessie.
As is the case for so many of these stories, the characters search for what isn’t there. They are explorers of the mind in addition to the natural world, and not finding what it is they’re searching for is enough to sustain their belief that it exists. So long as it’s not proven a hoax.
Diane’s boyfriend in “Up High in the Air” is so focused on finding a rare water snake in Lake Michigan that he completely shuts out everyone in his life. Her mother’s mind is slipping after the drowning death of her father, and Diane has been continuing an affair with Dean, one of her summer school students. Stress mounts from the demands and needs of others until she can’t quite comprehend what it is she wants for herself. In a way, she becomes psychologically numb and gets to the point where all bodies of water become “places to get lost in.”
Water, in this collection, symbolizes hope, loss, and the need to search for and explain the unknown, yet it appears on the surface in many of these stories. This isn’t to say that van den Berg’s use of these details is heavy-handed or forced. Water is a necessary image that not only works as a symbol; it also binds the individual stories into a well-crafted, thematically linked collection.
The title story follows Celia, a recent high school graduate, as she accompanies her mother, a biologist, to Madagascar. As in the stories that precedes this one, there’s a loss that has occurred in some form. In this case Celia’s father has left her mother, who now insists that she be referred to by her first name, June, in an attempt to recapture her youth. Swimming is Celia’s escape. She employs the help of a local, Daud, who’s assisting June in her research on the impact lemurs have on rainforest trees, to become a stronger swimmer. When June’s theories contradict Daud’s, he leaves and explains to Celia about her mother’s stubbornness that “knowing and believing are two different things.”
It’s no accident that the characters in these stories are researchers, scientists, and teachers. When the subject matter pertains to the mythical or the undiscovered, these are the types of people who’s beliefs beg to be tested and challenged. It makes for a stimulating read, which is what art in literary form hopes to accomplish. Where van den Berg continues to shine is through another technique that acts as vital, connective tissue: motherhood as a subtext for the more immediate, surface-level conflicts.
None of the female main characters in this collection have children, yet most play a motherly role to the males in their lives. This is the case in “Up High in the Air,” where Diane essentially has taken on the emotional weight of a mother when dealing with her boyfriend and Dean, who holds her, “without desire, comforting me the way I imagined he might comfort his own mother.” Her mother’s reversion to childlike tendencies also illustrates the mother-daughter role reversal, taxing Diane’s psyche.
“Goodbye My Loveds” brings this theme closer to the forefront of the narrative. Shelby, a young woman in her twenties, must take care of her adolescent brother, Denver, following the untimely deaths of their parents. But motherhood still isn’t the story’s focus. Everyone in “Goodbye…” was or is on a quest for answers or an understanding in an attempt to reconcile the past. The parents were field researchers, bitten by the same snake in the Amazon while trying to discover new species of primates. Denver wants to be an explorer like his parents and becomes obsessed with a seemingly bottomless pothole outside Shelby’s apartment. Jordan, a customer at the bookstore where Shelby works, refuses to drop his search for a 1st edition of Moby Dick. Shelby, haunted by the letter detailing her parents’ passing, wants to know who Calvin is—the name her mother screamed before she died.
Laura van den Berg shows with this collection that she has the ability to captivate. She places her readers directly in the action, providing the kind of insight from her characters that, at times, will make you question their motives but ultimately will ask for your empathy. The debate isn’t over if you will reread this collection; you’ll only ponder how many times you’ll revisit these stories.
October 1, 2009