Enchanting Devices: Stuart Dybek’s Short Fiction

“We were working late on the time machine in the little makeshift lab upstairs.” That’s the opening of the title story of Stuart Dybek’s new collection, Paper Lantern, and don’t you want to keep going? Since launching his career with 1990’s The Coast of Chicago, Dybek has stuck with short fiction (sometimes very short), and he’s internalized the mandate that the form demands crisp, propulsive, and metaphorically potent prose. But where many writers respond to this in familiar ways — the telling scrap of dialogue, the homily-like closing paragraph — Dybek’s fiction is a different kind of machine. The eerie, romantic, allusive mood that his stories evoke suggest an engine that can run on sand, or moonlight.

Consider that story, “Paper Lantern,” which does indeed start with a group of scientists working on a time machine, albeit of a very peculiar sort: The narrator tells us his efforts have brought him “backward to the zone where the present turns ghostly with memory and yet resists quite becoming the past.” This strangely precise notion of time travel hints at the story’s commingling of then and now: The lab catches fire, which sends the narrator into recollections of a past love and a past fire; that, in turn, sends him further back into a memory of being nearly run off the road by a trucker who, the narrator surmises, had his own past to reckon with: “Maybe he’s divorced and lonely, maybe his wife is cheating on him,” he thinks, and spying on the narrator and his lover “has revealed his own life as a sorry thing.” The story functions less through narrative arc than through flickers of theme and image.

A story about memory is a very Dybek-ian thing: A fetishisic interest in the past and its mementos runs through both Paper Lantern and Ecstatic Cahoots, a simultaneously released clutch of fifty works of flash fiction. The settings are uniformly midwestern and generally turn on a romantic remembrance. (Paper Lantern is subtitled “Love Stories,” but its companion might as well be, too.) “Clothes can be a kind of diary,” a woman tells her boyfriend in “Goodwill,” and vintage coats and hats and trousers and bikinis are abundant throughout, pathways to a charm and seduction the current world lacks. Vintage movies have much the same effect. In “Tea Ceremony,” a woman muses on what got her so romantically worked up at a movie with her lover that the usher booted them: “I blame it on that old, atmospheric theater and its velvet seats and winking starry sky. Like we’d entered a time machine to get there, the way the movies used to be. I always envied those generations that grew up making out at drive-ins instead of ordering Netflix. I wanted us to come together while Fred and Ginger were dancing.”

Which isn’t to say that these stories are clearly about love — or even exactly clear. Since The Coast of Chicago, Dybek has written in an increasingly metaphorical register, and in Ecstatic Cahoots in particular he’s freed himself to experiment, to the points that the lines between poetry and story often blur. In “Ant” a man is carried by an insect, just a short distance along the ground: “The grass slid gently beneath him without leaving a stain along his spine.” “Seiche” sets up a counterpoint between a romance and images of a priest swimming alone in a cold lake. “The Caller” alternates between a painter’s squabble with his muse and a power outage at a nearby carnival, the suggestive rocking at the top of the Ferris wheel captivating the crowd. Some pieces are simple tonal sketches: In “A Confluence of Doors” a man is adrift on sea of doors that knock louder and louder as his anxieties deepen, while “Ice” is a fable about a trip to a frozen lake and the emotional perils that lurk there; that’s not a sea monster beneath the ice, a man reassures his companion, but a piano played at a wedding last year: “It’s still submerged, playing Strauss, perhaps.”

So it’s hard, and perhaps even beside the point, to articulate what these stories are “about.” The brevity and gnomic qualities of Dybek’s fiction put him in league with writers like Lydia Davis or Donald Barthelme. But Dybek doesn’t claim Davis’s prickly humor or Barthelme’s playfulness. He is — to use a term that doesn’t get around much in avant-garde circles — a softie, a writer who’s more comfortable looking for the connections among lovers, however tenuous, than the breakups that tend to drive the contemporary short story. In Dybek’s world, it’s usually a bit past midnight, snowing, the brightest light coming off a neon sign in the distance. Here’s Dybek’s brand of loverly misunderstanding:

“Sweetheart, I love your moans,” he whispered.
“That’s good” she answered, “I’m covered in them.”
“Covered with moans. That’s nice. Baby, you’re waxing poetic,” he said.
“Moans?” she asked. “I thought you said moles.”

Lovely twists of phrase like that (from “Mole Man”) abound in both books. A man in “Waiting” finds himself “catching my breath beneath gulls yipping as they Holy Ghosted against the wind;” a trophy store’s burglar alarm goes off “as if the defeated have come by night to steal the prizes they can never win;” a woman fumes about her husband’s lover, whose “panties wave on the line like pennants over a used car lot.”

That last line comes from Paper Lantern‘s “Four Deuces,” perhaps the most conventional story in both books. Its frame is a bar conversation about yet another memory: An aging woman buttonholes the man next to her about her busted romance, which started thanks to her uncanny ability to correctly predict horse races. The story is a masterpiece of sustained tone — the woman is a flinty, old-school Chicago type, increasingly drunk and bitter. (“You ever wanted somebody dead, Rafael? People who get through life never wishing for that, they’re the lucky ones.”) It also works on a basic plot level — fortune, lost fortune, betrayal, murder. But under those layers of plot and tone are wisps of mysticism most writers don’t risk — the woman’s clairvoyance, her sexual power, the moments of confession. Dybek’s gift is his ability to juggle all this. It’s a kind of magic.