Amanda Merritt Reviews New Short Story Collections for EVENT 51/2

Amanda Merritt Reviews:

Tamas Dobozy, Ghost Geographies, New Star Books, 2021
Amber McMillan, The Running Trees, Goose Lane Editions, 2021

Tamas Dobozy’s latest collection of short stories, Ghost Geographies, contemplates ‘the ruins [of time, which] testify less to history, to what fascism and communism did, than to what failed to emerge, some dream whose corroded outline is all that remains.’ Yet, for a collection with such virtuosic variety, each of these stories seeks to resolve the same contradiction: the manner in which ‘absence’ is a tangible noun, the truth of which Dobozy, and many artists before him, has sought to capture, as if the process of disappearing were more real than the vision itself. Thus, in mapping the lost, abandoned and forgotten territories of war-torn lives and suppressed identities, Dobozy becomes ‘not a caretaker at all but a witness to…disappearance.’ These fragments, like dark matter, create an invisible, palpable unity that lingers long after the book closes.

Set in and between Soviet-occupied Hungary and post-war Canada, the protagonists of Ghost Geographies, predominantly Hungarian men, are comfortable roaming at the extremes of convention: they are academics lured behind the Iron Curtain by love and obsession (‘The Rise and Rise and Rise of Thomas Sargis’); savants who live in communist poverty and argue over their own flavour of Utopia (‘The Hobo and the Archivist’); conductors who manage the most avant-garde jazz band of the Soviet era as militantly as the regime (‘Black Hearted Villains’). Whether they are judge, professor, wrestler, heckler or film-maker, these characters are all asylum seekers of some real or imagined geography into which they inevitably disappear.

So don’t expect things to improve for these characters. True to their Eastern Bloc influences (Milan Kundera, Ismail Kadare, Sándor Márai), Dobozy’s stories forgo the redemptive conclusion. The first, ‘The Hobo and the Archivist,’ sets the tone when the Hobo-smuggler explains to Wuyts, the main character, the logic (and power) of anticipation:

We build you people, you know. Drawer by drawer, file card by file card, every next thing, we build you. Countries, cities, cabinets, these are what we turn you into…. In my perfect world everyone will know they’re going to get what they want—and they’ll be stuck in that moment, before it actually arrives, forever.

In no other story does this paralysis of anticipation feature more strongly than in ‘The Rise and Rise and Rise of Thomas Sargis.’ Against the backdrop of the Cold War, the title character elopes with an undercover Soviet spy to Hungary, abandoning his wife and two daughters in Canada to write propaganda for the Soviets. After Stalin’s death and the abrupt departure of his lover, Sargis persists for 30 years behind the Iron Curtain on the sweet milk of denial, as it slowly rots his body and mind. Of all 13 short stories, this one left me with the most astringent aftertaste, perhaps because the very nature of truth, in this case, is bitter.

Like Dobozy, Amber McMillan does not shy away from challenging subject matter. Throughout her debut collection, The Running Trees, she kneads comedy and whimsy back into the unsavoury aspects of human nature. Where Dobozy’s comedy is dark and weighty, McMillan’s touch can be so light at times, it seems, at a cursory glance, not to sense the gravity of its own subject matter.

McMillan explores pivotal moments between ex-lovers, siblings, the righteous and the accused, leveraging the immediacy of the scene to highlight the ways these painful or playful dynamics can define us. She does so with great brevity and a keen ear for dialogue, stripping the short story to its mechanics. In this collection, McMillan bridges the narrative and dramatic forms, trusting the reader to engage with her work the way an audience might.

While Dobozy’s narratives grow gradually over the bedrock of backstory, McMillan thrusts us right into the eye of conflict, dredging up the historic roots of a sibling squabble before abruptly swinging into the mind of a hopelessly romantic, anthrophilial feline. The predominance of dialogue in her work leaves the reader to fill in the set with props and costume, and hastens the read. One might sit down after dinner with this collection and find oneself edging toward the last page by bedtime, stifling laughter so as not disturb a quiet house.

By contrast, Dobozy’s prose style is predominantly expository. His work demands an alert and patient reader who will sit with those protagonists who pickle in their own backstory, who haunt their own pain. He manages to extend the temporal vertices of the short story like a magic hat, reaching into narrative infinity, pulling out one white hare.

The title story, ‘Ghost Geographies,’ seems to aggregate the central themes of the collection: ‘repression, censorship, political persecution, capitalism.’ However, based on the amount of time it spends musing, this story may have been better suited to the essay format, as it reads less like an allegory than a proof of concept. More successful is ‘Nom de Guerre,’ the most structurally innovative of the collection. Written in time-line fashion, the story truly exemplifies not only Dobozy’s narrative range, but also his historical acumen. Nikolas Blackman attempts to defend the honour of his missing sister, Sophie, perhaps the only woman he ever loved, who becomes the kind of chimera that Dobozy’s characters are invariably doomed to worship, preferring the agony of losing to the certainty of loss. Here, as with ‘The Rise and Rise and Rise of Thomas Sargis,’ the protagonist constructs his reality on a stack of counterfactuals, believing doggedly in the existence of alternate realities. He pursues this theory for the intellectual acclaim, yes, but also to escape his responsibility to the present. ‘Why,’ Sophie asks, ‘[do] birds try to fly through their own reflections?’ Ghost Geographies speculates that these characters are on some level unable to see their own reflections and so meet their ragged ends against glistening panes of truth.

Thus this collection sets itself the task of demonstrating the inherent contradictions of politics and personality, how they aren’t congruent, how one so often bears only an accidental relation to the other, as if what we crave, what we plan for, what we do, can lend itself to entirely unexpected consequence, heroic or villainous, and try as we might to reconcile them they just stand there, taunting us with their contradictions.

And yet, if one accepts the truth of a contradiction, one is committed to an infinite number of truths. This challenge becomes the central concern of the collection (and perhaps of our age). Ghost Geographies responds by becoming a Sándoric map, the subject of the title story, which knits together the abandoned parts of self, the vanquished places of the past, not as a means of return, but as a tribute to their productive and essential disunity.

There is an energy of fanaticism to some of Dobozy’s stories that arises like an electromagnetic field, drawing you in despite some deeper repulsion, as page after page the characters replay the same tragic beat. Even the stories that feel more domestic in scope are ultimately about self-imprisonment, the fine line between memory and illusion. ‘Ray Electric’ begins with a nigh-absurdist hot-air-balloon escape that would make Donald Barthelme proud, and ends with uncharacteristic optimism as two friends repair their ruptured sense of belonging to a country, to a code of honour, and to each other. While the concept of ‘home’ transforms for the better in ‘Ray Electric,’ ‘Spires’—also a kitchen sink drama starring the collection’s only female protagonist—explores the way ‘home,’ like the concept of ‘self,’ can become a prison, real or imagined. McMillan’s characters, specifically in her three-act play, The Book Club, also wrestle with the correlation between memory, self-concept and illusion, and ultimately with what happens when our fragile constructs are disrupted by dislocation or challenged by another’s perspective.

Just as Dobozy’s characters replay their traumas, hoping to alter or escape the past, McMillan’s stories repeat certain authorial ticks that speak to the overarching concerns of her collection. For example, a trend emerges in the nature and dynamics of her characters: There is often a rambling, larger-than-life ‘sensitive’ or creative type in conversation with a more clinical, left-brain, stoic type, as though this book were an attempt to reconcile these two ways of engaging with the world.

So where Dobozy’s narratives extend through geopolitical time, McMillan’s privilege the scenic present, and while Dobozy’s narrators settle comfortably into a distinct, conversational voice, McMillan eschews exposition almost entirely. Where Dobozy labours over historic detail, McMillan’s themes ricochet off scenes of modern, quotidian life.

Yet, while the structure, style and focus of these two writers couldn’t differ more, one theme remains constant. Both mine the uncomfortable and sometimes repugnant behaviours of humankind, laying them bare with humour, irony and a burning compulsion, as Janet proclaims in McMillan’s ‘The Book Club Act III’ ‘to tell the truth.’

Amanda Merritt