A Guide to Being Born

Ramona Ausubel has a Southern California pedigree. Could such fine, strange, layered writing have come from another climate? Certainly. But her new collection of short stories, A Guide to Being Born, is further  proof that the writing program at UC Irvine has become one of the finest in the country, capable of producing a writer whose work is both aggressively nontraditional and universally appealing.  

This collection is Ausubel’s second book. Her first, No One Is Here Except All of Us, was a novel set during WWII, a collage of destroyed lives pieced lovingly back together, object by object, by the writer, asserting her will over history.

Free will is also everywhere in evidence in this collection of stories, divided in four camps: Birth, Gestation, Conception, and Love. There’s a defiance in Ausubel’s rearrangement of life as we know it that harks back to Dada — an early-twentieth-century movement trailed by phrases like “vehement distraction,” “anti-war,” “anti-reason,” “surrealist.” Some of these stories are almost Cubist — body parts spring from all the wrong places, innards flourish on the outside — the human body a veritable Beaubourg of arteries and plumbing and fetal growth.

If Dada was purely a reaction to horror and not at times just a bunch of artists and writers drinking and having fun, then Ausubel might not belong in their camp. There’s equal parts celebration and futility here: getting pregnant behind the 7-Eleven, the willful insistence on Christmas snow in the land of palm trees and seventy-degree winters, the inanity of parents, the routines of generations, the difficulties of having a child with special needs.

These things, her stories suggest, all have two sides: you have to strip away the multimedia, bullhorn commentary running through each life to see the reverse. But be forewarned: Ausubel’s passage through takes place in an uncomfortable DMZ, this land of little judgment, where pain is filtered through imagination, is stirred in the soup of generations, wafting gently up into the disappearing atmosphere. Not unlike living in a Wes Anderson movie — there’s a flatness, a brightness, a lack of measurable distances that feels a lot like a medieval painting. Giant heads peer out of windows; babies look like little old men. Life, death, birth, love, life death, birthlovelifedeathbirthlove….

In one story, a group of grandmothers find themselves suddenly on an ocean liner; in another, the parents of an intellectually disabled girl choose to have her breasts and sexual organs removed; in another, a devoted husband looks for ways to experience pregnancy alongside his wife and sprouts a chest of drawers in his own chest. A  widowed professor watches as an academic lecture dissolves into a Mad Hatter event complete with spin-the-bottle; a young couple in love wanders their neighborhood, peering into windows to see how older people go about their lives.

There’s warmth and comfort here, too. But it is the companion-in-perplexity variety; not the I-know-something-you-don’t-about-the-world variety. “Pretend we are two huge saguaro cactuses,” an awkward young man tells his nervous date, “side by side in the rocky ground.” “Tell me the story of my life,” a grandmother asks the group of grandmothers, who are too afraid of dying to go down to their respective cabins. “Tell me what I was like when I was a baby.” There’s humor and an abundance of new ways to see things: “Their palm tree was bare and brown, not wrapped in Christmas glory but standing with its one big foot in the earth, sulking.”  

Above all, Ausubel captures that eyeless beauty in the world — the part that goes on without us inventing or destroying or noticing: “Junior watched his father walk out to the middle of the street and put his head back. The sky looked back at him, empty and snowless; the heavens were unpunctuated.”