Babylon and Other Stories

Babylon and Other Stories

by Alix Ohlin
     
 

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In their various locales--from Montreal (where a prosthetic leg casts a furious spell on its beholders) to New Mexico (where a Soviet-era exchange student redefines home for his hosts)--the characters in Babylon are coming to terms with life's epiphanies, for good or ill.

They range from the very young who, confronted with their parents' limitations, discover… See more details below

Overview

In their various locales--from Montreal (where a prosthetic leg casts a furious spell on its beholders) to New Mexico (where a Soviet-era exchange student redefines home for his hosts)--the characters in Babylon are coming to terms with life's epiphanies, for good or ill.

They range from the very young who, confronted with their parents' limitations, discover their own resolve, to those facing middle age and its particular indignities, no less determined to assert themselves and shape their destinies. Babylon and Other Stories showcases the wit, humor, and insight that have made Alix Ohlin one of the most admired young writers working today.


From the Trade Paperback edition.

Editorial Reviews

Benjamin Anastas
Readers will decide for themselves whether Ohlin’s stories, upon close inspection, are made of finely woven truths or appealing fictions, but this distinction hardly matters when the book is open in your hands and “Babylon” is singing.
— The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
Ohlin's debut novel, The Missing Person (2005), featured a believably odd plot and displayed her chops in nailing contemporary idioms. The 17 stories of this collection do the same in miniature, but never quite fuse her characters and their circumstances. The title story refers to the name of the Long Island town where computer programmer Robert, 29, meets medical assistant Astrid; they begin a highly charged, highly compartmentalized relationship within a bubble of work-phone-apartment that may have a more solid foundation on its flaws than on its virtues. The opening "King of Kohlrabi" features a typically precocious teen, Aggie, who must cope with her father's abandoning his family for his law partner, Margaret; the story pivots around her clear voice as events, beginning with a minor car accident, spin out of control. In "I Love to Dance at Weddings," Leda, following the death of her husband of 27 years, marries three times in succession, arousing a tangle of emotions in her son, Nick, and Nick's wife, Nathalie. Ohlin is expert in rendering the haze of alienation that hangs over all her characters' relationships and their various suburban settings. The stories read like hopeless, tightly constructed variations on unhappiness, a Babylon where communication is as impossible as it is pointless. (Aug. 1) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
KLIATT - Nola Theiss
This collection of short stories is filled with well-turned phrases, poignancy, suburban settings and crisp writing. Most of the stories are about relationships, especially those between husbands and wives, and while some might not hold great interest for young readers, there is little questionable language or graphic sex scenes. Some of the stories are about young people, such as the tale of Aggie, who is forced to look for a job when her father leaves the family to "try out" a new relationship, leaving Aggie and her mother to fend for themselves. In the title story, a man meets a woman at a wedding and is invited to her apartment where she proudly cooks a delicious meal for him, which he soon discovers was purchased at a fancy take-out place. He also finds that very little about her is real, but has to decide what is worth having anyway. In another story, the main character's father begins playing tennis and losing to the father of a beautiful young girl with whom the boy falls in love, though she doesn't return his affection and soon dies in a car accident. Years later, after his father's death, the boy meets the girl's father again and challenges him to a game of tennis, although the man has little or no memory of the previous games that were so important to him and his family. Only two of the stories are directly related to each other, but all are about relationships and how alienated we all are in or out of them. Reviewer: Nola Theiss
Library Journal
In her first collection, which follows her debut novel, The Missing Person, Ohlin offers stories that are uniform in length and time frame (they're all contemporary) but vary in locale. Young, witty, sardonic, and usually female, the narrators find themselves at some emotional distance from their siblings, parents, or lovers. In the title story, a young executive falls in love with a woman he meets at a coworker's wedding only to learn that she is a compulsive liar. In another, "The King of Kohlrabi," an amusingly cynical teenaged girl helps support her divorced mom by taking a receptionist job at a disreputable testing lab after meeting the company's owner in a grocery store. Reading a few stories in succession (which is easy to do) feels like being at a party filled with quirky people who are all related in some way. Each story is held together by a low-key tension that propels the reader through the pages. Highly recommended for libraries collecting modern short fiction.-Reba Leiding, James Madison Univ. Libs., Harrisonburg, VA Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Ohlin follows up her debut novel (The Missing Person, 2005) with a low-key collection that dabbles gingerly in suburban angst. The 17 stories here are mostly too brief for satisfying developments, a problem exacerbated by the author's habit of employing quick turns at the end for mild surprise. "Simple Exercises for the Beginning Student" exemplifies Ohlin's understated tone in its portrait of Kevin, a friendless, seemingly dull-witted eight-year-old boy who decides he wants to take piano lessons, even though his parents are struggling to pay the rent and don't have a piano. Moreover, his mother is pregnant with a child her husband apparently doesn't want, and the tentative lessons assume a redeeming, albeit fleeting beauty in the face of the father's abandonment of his family. "A Theory of Entropy" moves along in a similarly uninflected manner. It takes place at an isolated lake cottage inhabited by freelance designer Claire and her hermit boyfriend Carson, an academic hammering out a book based on his highly abstract notions about entropy-which Claire imagines is a "scientific term for fate." When his young, female editor, Jocelyn, arrives to spend several days working with Carson on the manuscript, Claire finds Jocelyn wonderfully human in a way that her boyfriend is not. The title story imagines a love affair between two emotionally damaged people: Robert, a lonely financial analyst, and Astrid, the strangely unhinged woman he meets at a wedding in Babylon, Long Island. In spite of the alarming tissue of pathological lies he catches her in, Robert stands by his rare love for Astrid: "Without her there was nothing. Yet he had no idea who she was." One of the few stories that dobear an organic growth is "The Tennis Partner," a rueful coming-of-ager told by a now-adult narrator who remembers how he loved from afar and lost the beautiful daughter of his father's tennis partner. Solidly constructed work that doesn't immediately wow.
From the Publisher
“Stories that tease, amuse, trouble, captivate, and offer fleeting comforts with every trembling denouement. . . . Ohlin stakes out the fertile middle ground between traditional realism and the new nod-and-a-wink fabulism.”
The New York Times Book Review

"Unforgettable. . . . Though many of her characters are suffering, the stories are never maudlin, and the people are sympathetic and real. . . . Passionate and warm."
San Francisco Chronicle

"With language intensely evocative and keenly focused on the nuances that define each of us as individuals, Ohlin delves into the lives of her characters—even in her shortest pieces—and reveals a depth to them, a poignancy, that is deeply affecting."
The Baltimore Sun

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780307481856
Publisher:
Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
12/10/2008
Series:
Vintage Contemporaries
Sold by:
Random House
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
288
File size:
2 MB

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The King of Kohlrabi

It was a summer of disasters. I was sixteen and just starting to relax fully into my vacation when my father took my mother and me out to dinner at the New Chinatown and told us over the Kung Pao chicken that he’d fallen in love with his law partner, Margaret, and the two of them were “going away for a while” to “sort things out.” While he was talking, he twisted a corner of the tablecloth into a ring in his right hand. My mother, leaning back in the corner of the booth, said, “Oh, for crying out loud.” She sounded annoyed. She was drinking a Mai Tai, as usual, and had given me the umbrella, also as usual. Tonight’s was blue and I twirled it between my fingers. I was always pleasantly surprised that it really opened and closed, just like a real umbrella. I stuck it into a piece of my chicken and moved some baby carrots and water chestnuts into an arrangement around it, like small, edible patio furniture. No one said anything. I stared at the couple at the table next to us, who were sharing a Volcano, holding hands over the blue flame in the center of it. They saw me looking and loosed their hands as if they were embarrassed.

“You know how much I love you both,” said my dad. My mother and I didn’t say anything to this. Margaret had been at our house for Christmas that year. She was a quiet, large-boned woman with a wide, dark mouth and I’d always thought she was a lesbian.

“I thought she was a lesbian,” I said.

“Well, she’s not,” said my dad.

I drove home from the New Chinatown. I had just gotten my driver’s license but my parents wouldn’t let me take the car anywhere without them. My mom always sat in the front passenger seat, making a big show out of white-knuckling the armrest and covering her eyes when she thought I was being reckless. My father sat in the back seat and whistled. He was a good whistler, and that night he did an up-tempo rendition of “I Get a Kick Out of You.”

I looked at him in the rearview mirror and wondered if he was so happy with Margaret the lesbian that he couldn’t stop being happy, even for just a few minutes, even for us. Then a guy came out of nowhere in a red Toyota Corolla, turning in front of me off a side street with a stop sign. I don’t know what he was thinking.

“Aggie!” yelled my mother, gripping the dashboard.

“It’s not my fault,” I said quickly, and braked hard, too hard I guess, and the car skidded to the left; the right front fender of our car collided with the side of the Toyota. The driver, steam pouring from under his hood, got out and started walking around the dark street, clutching his arm and howling. Next to me my mother began to cry in a dry, sharp way, jaggedly inhaling. These two noises, my mother’s and the driver’s, were the only two sounds, the night otherwise quiet. We all sat there breathing. My father whistled the first few notes of “Be Careful, It’s My Heart.”

This was the second disaster.

The next day my father packed a suitcase and left for Santa Fe, where he and Margaret had sublet an apartment for the summer. She came to pick him up in her Saab and they drove away together, leaving our crumpled Honda in the driveway. I watched from the bedroom window but didn’t say good-bye. As soon as they were out of sight, my mother walked into my room without knocking and plopped herself down on the bed.

“Things are going to be different around here now that your father’s gone, Aggie,” she said severely. “You’ll be giving up your pampered life of leisure.”

“What?” I said. I had planned to spend the summer learning to play the bass guitar so I could start an all-girl punk band—and it was a good plan, except I didn’t own a bass guitar and had no money to buy one—but Mom said I’d have to get a job instead. I wasn’t thrilled by this idea. My two best friends were waitressing, and they kept calling, in the middle of their shifts, asking me to remind them never to do it again.

“No, seriously,” said my friend Karen, calling from the pay phone at Shoney’s. “I’m going to have a bruise the size of a quarter where this guy pinched my butt. I mean, you should see him, Aggie. His fingers are like cigars.

Lucy, my other friend, was working as a hostess at a place where she had to dress up as a pirate, with an eye patch and everything. When people from school drove by the restaurant she ducked behind the counter, whether there was a customer there or not. If anybody got upset she’d say, “Sorry! It’s that peg leg of mine acting up again.”

I put off the job search for as long as possible, but it wasn’t easy. Every night, before she fixed dinner, my mother would fling the cupboard doors wide open and sigh dramatically. “I guess I can eke something out of the meager supplies I have here.”

“We aren’t going to starve, Mom.”

She’d shake her head. “I don’t know, Aggie. You know what I make.” She was a substitute teacher. She made next to nothing during the school year and exactly nothing in summer. “I mean, who knows if we’ll ever see your father again.”

“Mom, he’s an hour away. It’s not like he absconded to Mexico.”

“So far as you know.”

She’d send me to the grocery store with twenty dollars and tell me to get enough food for the week. While I was gone, she hung around the living room building tall houses out of the L.A. IS FOR LOVERS cards I’d brought back from our last family vacation, three or four levels high, stretching across the whole dining room table. When I got back she’d blow on the structure and say, “See? Everything just collapsed like a house of cards.” This was her favorite joke.

“Mom, I feel like you’re not handling this very well.”

“Well, thank you for your honesty, Aggie.”

“Why don’t you get out of the house or something? See your friends?”

“Sure I will! I’ll invite everyone out for a fancy dinner! And what I’ll do is, I can use the money you’ve made in your new job.”

At this point we usually declared a truce and ordered out for pizza.

One night at Smith’s I was weighing two pounds of potatoes—“It worked for the Irish,” my mom had said, “and it can work for us. Just pray there’s no famine, Aggie”—when a man came up to me and said, “Excuse me, miss, what do you think of this kohlrabi?”

“I don’t work here, sorry,” I said.

He shook his head quickly. He was a short man, probably around five-three or five-four, with longish gray hair and tanned, stocky arms. “I know you don’t,” he said. “I’m asking you as a consumer. I need an impartial opinion. My wife wants me to bring home some kohlrabi, and it has to be perfect. If you knew her you’d know what I mean. The way she cooks it is so succulent, it’s just wonderful. She’s the Queen of the Kohlrabi. You should come by and meet her sometime. Anyway, if I don’t get the good kohlrabi I’m a dead man. So please, what do you think?”

The vegetable he was holding up looked like some kind of alien spaceship, with four or five long stems shooting out from a little pod in the middle. At the ends of the stems were green leaves that trembled gently in his hands.

“I’ve never eaten kohlrabi,” I said. I’d never seen it before, either. “So I have no basis for comparison.”

“You don’t eat kohlrabi? Why? Do you have something against it? Is there something I should know?”

“Look, I’m young, I just haven’t gotten around to it yet,” I said, and started edging away from the produce section.

He followed me. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to offend you.” He seemed sincere, if slightly insane. “Look, a fresh eye is good. It doesn’t matter if you’ve never eaten any. Just look at it and tell me what you think.”

I picked it out of his hand and felt it briefly, cupping the pod in my palm like a baseball. The whole thing was a little strange and I glanced over at the canned-goods aisle, mapping an escape route in case it turned ugly. “Well, I’m no expert,” I finally said, “but this one seems a little . . . limp.”

“Limp?”

“Just a little.”

“Oh my God, you’re right,” he said, taking the kohlrabi back and staring at it. “You are just exactly right. Thank you so much. Really, you’ll never know what you’ve done for me tonight.”

“Okay,” I said.

We shook hands, and I wheeled my cart away. I didn’t even know what kohlrabi tasted like or how you cooked it—this was the kind of thing I would’ve asked my dad, if he were around to ask. But he wasn’t. I finished up the shopping and was standing in the express line when the man came up behind me. I didn’t have many items in my cart, and nothing fancy. His was full of kohlrabi and gourmet cheeses.

“This is very crisp,” he whispered. “I think she’s going to be happy, my wife.”

“Good,” I said.

“You eat very plainly,” he said.

“We live in an age of austerity,” I told him.

He looked surprised. “We do?”

“Well, my mother and I do,” I said. She told me this all the time. I started putting the groceries on the conveyor belt. It was what my mom called peasant food, or life’s necessities. I couldn’t help staring at the decadent foods, like Pop Tarts and Ruffles, that other people had in their carts.

He nodded. I looked over at him and saw that his gray T-shirt and jeans were neatly ironed.

“I’m Mr. Dejun,” he said.

“Aggie.”

We shook hands and shuffled forward in line.

He unloaded his kohlrabi behind my stuff. “So what do you do with yourself when you aren’t coming to the aid of strangers in grocery stores, Aggie?”

“Well, right now, I’m supposed to be looking for a job.”

“Is that right?” said Mr. Dejun. “What kind of job? Can you type?”

I didn’t see why not. “I guess so.”

“I’d like to hire you, Aggie,” he said. “I could use someone with your outgoing personality and discriminating eye for produce. Come see me tomorrow.” He pulled a business card out of his jeans, and I put it in my pocket, then we shook on the deal.

I was at his office by nine the next morning. His company, Dejun Enterprises, Inc., was a private environmental testing firm. They tested just about everything you could think of—water, soil, air, machinery, fabrics, textiles, even once, he confided, condoms. As soon as I got there Mr. Dejun took me on a tour of the place, through all the labs where technicians in white coats hovered over long orange counters covered with Bunsen burners and petri dishes and test tubes, just like the labs at school.

“Listen, if you can think of something that needs to be tested, we’ll test it for you. That’s our attitude here at Dejun Enterprises, Inc. We test things that have never been tested before, and we test ’em cheaper than anybody else. Never turn a job down. Listen, Aggie, I’ve been in business for a long time, and one thing I’ve learned is that you always have to be willing to take the customer’s money. Got it?”

“Got it,” I said.

He led me down hallways and into the employee lounge. I was completely disoriented, but somehow we wound up back in the reception area. There was a frowning, wrinkled woman sitting at the desk wearing a headset, apparently to leave her hands free for smoking. Her ashtray was full of cigarette butts. Next to the desk was a free-standing fishtank. Its water looked alarmingly gray, and I wasn’t sure whether there were fish in it or not.

“Sophia, you’re free,” said Mr. Dejun. “The cavalry is here.”

“Yippee,” said Sophia, not moving.

“She loves me,” Mr. Dejun told me.

“She’s a young one, isn’t she,” said Sophia.

“Hi, I’m Aggie,” I said, and shook her hand. She didn’t really shake back.

Mr. Dejun said, “Sophia is actually not the receptionist, she’s our accounts payable czaress. She is the Diva of Debts, aren’t you, darling?”

“Sure,” said Sophia.

“She loves me. The point being, Aggie, that she’s just filling in because we had to, ah, part with the receptionist. But now we have you for the summer and we don’t have to hire a new receptionist until fall. Isn’t it great, Sophia?”

“Good morning, Dejun Enterprises,” said Sophia. She lit a cigarette and blew the smoke at Mr. Dejun.

“What happened to the receptionist?” I said. I caught a movement out of the corner of my eye and saw some fish emerging from behind the plastic plants of the tank. They looked okay in spite of the secondhand smoke.

“She was a terrible liar. Are you a good liar?”

“Pretty good, I guess,” I said.

“Only pretty good?”

“Actually, I’m an excellent liar. The ‘pretty good’ part was a lie.”

Mr. Dejun tilted back his head and laughed. His long gray hair was stiff and bristly and maintained its shape when it moved, like a cloud formation. I could see the backs of his teeth.

“You know, I’m really starting to get a kick out of you, young Aggie. Now listen. We get a lot of calls here, a lot of calls. And we can’t always take them, right? We’re only human, and there are only so many hours in a day. So sometimes we’ll come to you and say, ‘If so-and-so calls, I don’t want to talk to him, tell him I’m in a meeting.’ Now if I were to say that to you, what would you do?”

“Tell him you’re in a meeting.”

“Excellent! That is exactly the right answer. You’re brilliant, Aggie. You are really terrific.”

“What did the old receptionist say?”

“It turned out that she was a very devout woman who refused to lie. She’d say, ‘Yes, he’s here, but he doesn’t want to talk to you right now.’ Nothing about meetings. You’ve got to respect her integrity, but man-oh-man did we have a lot of pissed-off people on the phone.”

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