The Opium Lady

by JoAnne Soper-Cook
ISBN: 0864923708

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A Review of: The Opium Lady
by Lyall Bush

The best short story writers curve their art around suggestion. The plume of smoke runs in two directions, too-back down the chimney into the troubled house, and drifting up into the blue erasure of the sky. Length can vex the balance: longer tales gravitate to the moral density of the novel, whose scale demands more than than wispy suggestion; shorter stories shrink into anecdote or haiku, only rarely finding the controlled angina of a Beatles song. (I'm thinking of "Eleanor Rigby".) The great writers of the short story, from Poe to Chekhov to Joyce and Borges, thread character, scene, scenario and desire onto a few social facts and fabricate work with the lustre of a blueprint: imaginative fruition that still points to a world elsewhere. Joyce's stories of decision and delusion in Dublin imagine an Ireland with a dire, dying glow. Edgar Allen Poe's tales of the uncanny and of furious detection show us how the Old World's ghosts are re-purposed in the gloaming forests of the New.
Writers who don't account for this thistledown tend to tell stories without much valence, as people in English departments used to say in the '80s. Jonathan Bennet's and Joanne Soper-Cook's new collections of stories, different as they are from one another, share this echo problem. Both are able writers, but neither gathers together a narrative with any of the ambition of, say, Chekhov's "The Lady with the Dog", which begins as a story of self-absorbed travellers having an affair and only gradually takes on nuance and movement, to the point that the fear that Chekhov captures on the last page is exquisite. A few scattered sentences about the sea, about steam blowing out of a Moscow dining club, convey the wrenching feeling of ice and despair inside a life-changing decision. These moments, and a certain drifting movement, are the story's genius.
In Joanne Soper-Cook's new collection of stories we see a fair number of virtuoso turns, the main one being her use of old snapshots to set each story on its trajectory. In an author's note in the back she thanks friends in Boston and family members in Canada for sending snapshots her way. We know, then, if we doubted our eyes, that the photos at the top of each story are found artifacts, some the strange existential glimmer-images you come across in flea markets or under the lids of piano benches in your own house-the frozen gaze of dolls in the images, the natural effluvia of the 20th century's predilection for making objects of everything, including experience. A few minutes' stop on the highway, an hour on the beach shuttles over the years into pictures that seem marbled, picked.
I like that each story evolves in some organic way from the photographs that have been reproduced, jauntily askew, near the titles. Each narrator in turn thinks through the pictures, imagining conflicts and conversations just outside the frame. Then following one or two slower, essay-like paragraphs about the faces and bodies we are suddenly greeted with lives twitching, abloom, moving backwards in time from the picture.
Much of the work feels both impressive and thin. The stories have a parlor trick quality about them because of the pictures, which I think generate a writerly problem: they say both much more, and much less, than words do. Beyond that, they are solid souvenirs in a way that words aren't, and indeed the two media push and pull on each other far more than Soper-Cook's village-historian narrators allow. Glance at the photographs as you read and you might wonder, as I did, why the narrators chose to talk about characters when the photographs so often also took in the crackling, random world: a strange floating past of unmown grass, overcast sky, a queer slant of sun. Halfway through the collection, when the narrative routine was established and promised not to break, I found myself longing for something less attached than these stories-less bounded to the people who are, after all, despite being forgotten or discarded, part of some historical record still. There are other Wittgensteinian/ontological questions the narrators leave out, but which form our ultimate fascination with old photographs: who are these people, beyond the things that happened to them in their lives? What happened to them in their random, stray thoughts? Where are their thoughts now? Photographs are about the fact that is not there and the fact that is, to steal a line from Wallace Stevens, and the mystery is rarely solvable or narratable.
The stories that stand out-"The San", the end of "Definitely Somewhere", "Bessie"-work because they don't smother their characters in detail but instead let weather, mood, the strange music of hot days set the tone. At the end of "Bessie", which begins with the photo of a child from the 1940s and follows her as she copes with her mother's polio and some intrusive images of dirty water, decomposing leaves, septic tanks, the narrator lingers on her own snapshot of the child, who has been wishing for a clean world: Her mother is pinning laundry on the line, a clean swath of white against the warm September sky. Her father is in his weekend clothes, on his hands and knees on the ground with a shovel, joking and laughing with Bessie's mother. A small part of Bessie wonders what they have to smile about, but this part of her is forced away by the rest, which insists upon this scene of normalcy. And indeed, when her parents move to greet her it really is the same as always. She has succeeded in mastering an elusive magic. She knows how to elude the probing of her conscience. She has learned how to fool herself.
The abject images of the story up to now crowd these sentences, but the sheer skill of the concluding lines-holding this vision in, keeping the dirty world out-can leave you smiling at the art.

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