Far-reaching short stories

Sometimes it’s hard to find a good read; sometimes it’s good to find a hard read. Amy Bloom’s new book is both.

February 12, 2010 16:43
3 minute read.
'Ahava' (love) by Robert Indiana.

ahava 311. (photo credit: Courtesy)


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In Where the God of Love Hangs Out, Amy Bloom masterfully outlines the connections and tensions between people, between past and present and between what could have been and what is.

But there are other dualities in the book, and they are at the core of each story and the book as a whole.

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It is written in prose that moves easily from surgically accurate portrayals of her characters to sensitively human, delicate touches that are often lyrical and at times achingly beautiful. These characters range from middle-aged academics to college students, from affected but charming British gentlemen to American children of a white mother and a black father.

The book consists of short stories, some of which stand alone and others that deal with the same cast of characters, and Bloom shifts perspectives from first-person to omniscient narration in the same set of stories, so that although there are chronological gaps between the separate parts, we know the inner workings of her people so well it is never disorienting.

But while the style, the stories and the characters that populate them seem varied, they share some traits that seem to be at the center of Bloom’s writing.

These are the tales of dysfunctional families, of spouses and parents who make mistakes, sometimes horrible ones. They are wonderfully written, but they are not always easy to read, and they are definitely not always easy to stomach. Whether the writing is graphic and gut-wrenching or delicate and deft, the content often beats the style down straight into the ground.

The first set of stories (“William and Clare”) tells of an adulterous relationship, and whatever your views on adultery, it is hard nowadays to be shocked by what many see as simply straying off the path – at most. But then we have the second set of stories – “Lionel and Julia” – and things get a bit more difficult. Julia has been Lionel junior’s stepmother since he was seven. The story begins with Lionel senior’s funeral, 12 years after they married. In the night after the funeral, Julia consoles her 19-year-old stepson for his father’s death, and then, without planning to, they find themselves sleeping together.

While adultery might be more palatable to modern tastes, this basically incestuous twist in the  plot could very possibly provoke a parallel and rather uncomfortable twist in the pit of the average reader’s stomach. For this reader, the main stumbling block was a moment when Julia feels her stepson’s ribs and thinks that he is not eating enough at school.

At the risk of sounding overly moral, judgmental and fusty, not to mention an old-fashioned fuddy-duddy, let me try to explain that it’s not only the moral discomfort of taking the road she chooses for these characters that makes one hesitant; it’s the feeling that it isn’t necessary.

Exploring unfamiliar and problematic moral ground is often what makes a story truly great. Whether one likes it or not, novels like Nabokov’s Lolita and Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment are important not only for purely technical literary reasons; they are great pieces of fiction perhaps mainly because they take us into minds and situations that challenge us as individuals and as parts of society.

“Lionel and Julia” would have been no less effective if the devastating incestuous act (and it is devastating: It taints the rest of the lives of the entire family) had been merely hinted at, or even consciously thought about by one or both of the characters. I’m not entirely sure the story would have suffered if there had been only some kind of vague uncertainty, some unspoken, unspeakable tension between the two main characters.

To be fair, Bloom’s other stories are convincing in this respect (all of them have moments that might challenge the reader’s boundaries) and again, the writing is consistently good. Sometimes it is far better than good: There are moments of beauty and brilliance that demonstrate why Bloom is as highly considered as she is. Is that always enough? That’s a question that might have to be answered subjectively.

The long and short of it is that Where the God of Love Hangs Out is absorbing, thought provoking and affords the reader not a small amount of pleasure – but occasionally it also manages, strangely enough, to fall short by going too far.

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