Babylon and Other Stories
Knopf / 288 pages / $23.00
Many writers, stalwarts like F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Cheever and Joyce Carol Oates among them, know the secret Alix Ohlin divines in her deft new collection, Babylon and Other Stories: The short story is tailor-made for the theme of alienation.
Cheever, for example, defined the suburbs and their sometimes comic, mostly painful alienation; there may never be as perfect a short story about suburban life as The Country Husband. However, Ohlin is young yet -- her (mostly) suburban tales augur perfection for the future and some of the stories in Babylon (like the title story) are perfect now, while others just miss perfection, yet shimmer nevertheless.
Ohlin has two conjunctive themes, familial strife and alienation, and they run together with place - suburban life, small towns, the less visible side of the wide expanse of America. Ohlin knows where her characters come from and where they are going (never a good place): an old man dying of lung failure, a teenager missing her profligate father, a man in love with a woman he knows nothing about, another teenager who loses at love to his father's tennis partner.
The dark little jewel of the collection is Simple Exercises for the Beginning Student, a tight, suffocating story about the harshest parts of childhood. Eight-year-old Kevin is a friendless geek of a child who lives in a cramped apartment with his struggling parents. His mother is pregnant, unknown to his father - a revelation that causes the father to leave the two to fend for themselves. Kevin dreams of music and castles and people dancing - exactly the scene one imagines to the tune of a Strauss waltz. He sees music in his head - notes of a fire engine or of a song bleed through his head in a synesthesia of color. He wants to play piano and his mother finds a local Asian woman to give him lessons, cheaply.
The lessons themselves are unbearably bleak events. Mrs. Tanizaki's teenage son, a geek himself, bullies Kevin from afar and Mrs. Tanizaki doesn't know Kevin's secret: He has no piano on which to practice. He has drawn himself a paper keyboard on which he attempts to learn the notes of the pieces she sends him home to study.
Stark yet complex, Simple Exercises for the Beginning Student lures the reader into the claustrophobic world of familial dysfunction with its heart-breaking nuance.
The title story, Babylon (the town on Long Island), finds Robert, a 29-year-old computer analyst who has never been in love, falling at first sight for Astrid, an ethereal blonde who could very well be insane.
Astrid works at a women's clinic as a physician's assistant. Astrid is also a liar of disturbing proportions. (Her first lie is small: Take out food transferred to pots and pans as if homemade.) Yet Robert, whose previous relationships simply never caught fire for him emotionally, is smitten - he literally cannot imagine his life without her now that he has her. "Without her there was nothing."
And yet, like Kevin with his imaginary keyboard, there is no there there. The relationship Astrid and Robert have built is as dependent on claustrophobic inertia as is Kevin's relationship with the piano.
The King of Kohlrabi features an angst-ridden teenager, Aggie, in the summer her father has left home to "sort things out" with his law partner, Margaret, who Aggie had always thought was a lesbian. Aggie's mother begins a steady emotional decline as the summer and Aggie's father's absence lengthen. She takes to wearing a housecoat night and day, the pockets brimming with the stuff of daily life from nail polish to gardening tools. When Aggie suddenly becomes ill, things shift in the household - but rather than easing Aggie's sense of loss, her pain is intensified.
What Ohlin does best is encapsulate longing and loneliness. There are no characters in Babylon who aren't missing something: a parent, a partner, a reason to live. They are alienated from themselves, each other, their respective worlds. Sometimes Ohlin presents their predicaments with dark humor, other times with gut-wrenching pathos. With language intensely evocative (Kevin sees a piano at Mrs. Tanizaki's for the first time and "he was frightened: it just stood there, its wood body staunch and foreign, looking back at him like an animal." When Robert discovers Astrid's first lie, at first he is perturbed and then, "suddenly it made her more human to him, more endearing.") 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, and a poignancy, that is deeply affecting.
Victoria A. Brownworth is the author and editor of several short story collections including "Day of the Dead." Her novella "After the Fire" appears in "Distant Horizons," a short story collection edited by Greg Herren. She teaches short story writing, literature and film at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.