Susan Daitch: Fall Out (Madras Press, 2013)

Cover Art by Valerie Spain

Cover Art by Valerie Spain

Years ago I read an article about the unexpected effects of the nuclear testing this country did in New Mexico and Nevada in the 1950s and early 60s. Because of rain patterns, the radioactive fall out was blown far to the other side of the continent, and this would later lead to a spike in certain diseases. That this would occur so far from the location of the testing sites was completely unanticipated. I wanted to explore the idea of unintended and far reaching consequences through a triptych of interlocking stories that became “Fall Out.”

~~ Susan Daitch

Susan Daitch found herself interested in fallout. Initially, the radioactive kind, but, because she’s a writer, it spreads out from there. This is the first of the Madras Press 2013 releases I’ve read, a set of quick stories that follows literal and figurative fallout.

It’s a story-suite that seems like one thing, then another: techno-rant, science fiction, industry exposé, comedy, family saga, social commentary. The overwhelming theme is that actions have consequences: even the smallest thing we do today might echo into years into the future, just like radioactive fallout no one knew existed in the 50s when they were setting off all those bombs. Each of the four sections chains together, showing how characters in the “present” of any one time are affected by what happened in the past.

Zweig wanted to reproduce that ephemeral moment when you hope the hand that extends itself will not crush instead, that the audience’s fear and heightened anxiety will fight with the desire to trust,… He couldn’t quite get it right.

“Conduction,” the first segment, is very short – a few paragraphs – and starts with factual information before segueing into an anecdote that forms the first link of the narrative chain. “Night of the Avengers” carries forward the chain, in a zig-zag way; the descriptions are wonderful. It leads into “Dust Devil,” which is where I started to catch on to the narrative chain. Inspired by a movie, Melman changes his major to archaeology, heads to the desert for field work, and unwittingly walks into a nudist camp. His search for artifacts is fruitless, looters having beaten him to it over the years, but when offered an opportunity to do something about that, he demures. The final section, “Tourist Attraction” tries to pull it all together.

If he took it, or anything else, from the site, he couldn’t donate the objects to a museum whose security would probably be poor, or sell the artifacts and wave goodbye as they traveled to a life in a vitrine in Tokyo, or Paris or Moscow. Once loose in the world they could, just like Palmer’s stolen babies, go anywhere. When he walked out of the cave around nightfall, he took nothing with him. He rolled a few boulders over the entrance to the cave, so looters would miss it, though he knew, as he drove back into town and later to the airport, that this is never possible, and sooner or later everything worth exposing is unearthed.

For me, it didn’t quite come together as a whole; it became another case of the parts exceeding the sum. Still, it was an enjoyable read. Susan Daitch has a fondness for the history of art and film: her novels and stories include frequent elements of film restoration, illustration, and restoration. It’s quite possible I’m just missing a crucial element that’s necessary to get the full impact.

Madras Press always stretches out my comfort zone. This year, they’re using that matte cover I so love (it seems to be catching on everywhere with indie publishers) and the cover art led me to the wonderful website of Valerie Spain where other treasures awaited. As with all Madras Press books, net proceeds benefit a nonprofit organization of the author’s choosing. Daitch’s book will help support Women for Afghan Women, “securing and protecting the rights of disenfranchised Afghan women and girls in Afghanistan and New York, particularly their rights to develop their individual potential, to self-determination, and to be represented in all areas of life: political, social, cultural and economic.” I can see the significance of fallout all over that.

That’s what I love about Madras Press: it’s more than a book, it’s an adventure, and even if the story doesn’t land squarely for me, I fully enjoy the conversation. What more can you ask for from seven dollars.

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