Robin Black: If I Loved You I Would Tell You This (Random House, 2011) [IBR]

Every single one of my stories grew out of a need on my part to deal with something. The plots don’t come from my life but the central issues do. Loss. Anger. A certain stuckness in one’s own story. Grief over a child’s uncertain path. The way we disappoint and both knowingly and unknowingly betray those whom we love. I needed a way to sort through a life that by the time I was forty felt overwhelming to me. Writing stories is how I did that. And do that still.

~~Robin Black, Rumpus interview with Natalie Baszile

When is it an act of love to keep a secret? Is honesty always the best policy, or are some truths better kept to oneself? Perhaps I was overly influenced by the title of this wonderful collection, but it seemed to me each story had at its core the question of revealing and withholding information from loved ones. When is it a betrayal to speak, when is it a kindness? Knowledge can also be a weapon: Once we know something, we can’t un-know it, so it’s a crucial decision, to tell or not to tell. So often, it’s one we make for imperfect reasons, or even without any conscious thought at all. These stories make us think about it.

Each story is an intense emotional journey. Some have a hint of odd about them. Maybe not odd, just unusual; yes, that’s it, an unusual element. A father thinks about his mistress while on the way to introduce his teenaged daughter to her first guide dog. A woman writes a letter – in second-person conditional, no less – to a neighbor about the intrusive fence he’s planned. A young widow mentally remodels a fellow soccer-mom’s kitchen to better accommodate the sound of her prosthetic leg. A house develops electrified water (and this is directly from Black’s real-life experience). Come on, when was the last time you read a story that not just mentioned but featured – starred – such things? Yet each story is clearly, unmistakably real, with a very human purpose.

Black has a number of excellent interviews online (I’ll refer to a few of them in connection with individual stories), as well as an essay about “late bloomers” on, with the lead-in, “If you’re one of the legions of people who didn’t hit their sweet spot at age 25, there are a few things Robin Black would like you to know”:

Dear fellow late-bloomer, I thought you could use some advice. I know I would have benefited from some along the way, but back when I most needed it, there wasn’t much to be found. I earned my MFA in writing in 2005, when I was 43 years old and, much to my distress, the phrase “young emerging artist” seemed to be everywhere. There were prizes for young emerging artists; there were words of wisdom for young emerging artists; there were lists of the most exciting young emerging artists to watch. Anxious to find my peers, I did an online search—only to be told: “Your search for middle-aged emerging artists has yielded no results.”

~~Robin Black, ““Why It’s Never Too Late” on

Several of her stories feature older main characters. I like that, heading as I am for 60, a lot. But there’s also a 10-year-old who leaps off the page. Three stories are from a male perspective. Most of the stories include nuggets of humor, but one (the “extra story” added for the paperback edition) is wall-to-wall hilarity. I thought about this as I read what Black had to say in her Bombsite interview about her tendency to focus on rather grim circumstances:

You know, I’ve been waiting for someone to figure out that I’m just into Old Testament-type vengeance and that’s why all my characters are so miserable. As my friends are fond of pointing out, no one wants to be a character in a Robin Black story…. I’ve been wondering lately if the people who don’t like story collections would like them more if they had permission to take a year to read through them. After my book came out it really hit me that people might sit down and read it straight through in a day or a few, and I have to say, it wasn’t a happy thought. In part because If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This does deal with so much tragedy, I think it’s better taken in small bits.

~~Robin Black, interview

While I typically take three or four months to read BASS or PEN/O.Henry, I read this in about six days. I guess I have a high tolerance for tragedy, because I thought it was wonderful; I didn’t notice these stories were any more or less tragedy-laden than other collections. Then again, I’d just read a boatload of tragic novels for a class, including Light in August, Beloved, and Disgrace; after those, mere tragedy seems like a vacation. I would’ve liked to have taken longer, but only because I enjoy digging into a story in great detail, often posting about one at a time. The title story in particular would’ve been fun to dissect on a sentence-by-sentence basis, but that wasn’t practical for me. So I just read, and reacted.

The stories:

“If I Loved You” (The Southern Review, Autumn 2006 as “A Fence Between Our Homes”)

If I loved you, I would invite you in, sit you down in our kitchen, and I would say to you: You just never know. You, the yeti. You don’t know why this matters so much to us, why we care. You don’t know what secret pains we have that we haven’t shared with you. You don’t know us.
But then I would have to admit that I don’t know everything either, wouldn’t I? Like I don’t know why it matters so much to you to build that fence exactly there.
What happened in your life that makes a property line mean so much?

I know a lot of people who hate cancer stories, no matter what. I know a lot of people who hate second-person stories, no matter what. A second person cancer story – one that luxuriates in sentiment as well as technique (for instance, use of the conditional mood) and eschews action – that’s a tough sell. But this isn’t a cancer story (though there is cancer in it) and it isn’t a technique story (though the technique fascinates me) and it isn’t a sentimental story. It’s just a human story. It’s beautiful reading, shading towards prose poetry in places. But it’s also the kind of story that shines a spotlight on the little corners of your own life, makes you wonder just where and when you could’ve moved the fence a foot, and just why you didn’t – and makes you wonder who the lady with 37 items who got into the express line might be, and what she’s dealing with, before you start harrumphing. And in that, in its potential to affect the reader’s life and possibly even better the world, it’s important, as well as beautiful.

I further wondered about the withholding of truth in the context of this story: is it an act of hostility? Or an act of self-protection? Is there an expectation, a hope even, that at some point, the yeti will learn what she did not tell him and feel terrible, or is there a fear that even if they did humble themselves to the point of revealing what may or may not be new information to him, it would not matter? I’m not sure; it could go either way, and that’s what’s ultimately mesmerizing to me.

“The Guide” (Indiana Review, Winter 2004)

“Would you like to compare coping mechanisms?” she’d asked him once, when he let fly his rapidly growing anger at her rapidly shrinking world. “Yours versus mine? What’s her name, again? Amanda? Miranda? Would you like to have this conversation? Or should we just keep trying to help each other stumble through for a few more years? For Lila’s good?”
Stumble. It was the obvious answer. They would stumble through, of course.

It’d be easy to sum this story up as “A man takes his teenaged daughter to get her first guide dog and encounters his feelings about her approaching departure for college” but that would be doing it a disservice; it’s a lot more complicated than that. Just who are we protecting when we shield others from difficult realities? When we tell someone, “Don’t cry,” or “Don’t feel bad, it’ll be ok,” is it to soothe them, or to protect ourselves from the intense emotion they radiate? This for me was the crux of this story, but how Black got there – the journey she planned for me – was particularly interesting.

In her Rumpus interview, she specifically discusses the technique she used: “[O]ne form of misbehavior that interests me a lot is inattention. That question of where the gravitational center of one’s thoughts is at any given time – which is so very often not in the scene that’s unfolding and in which one is participating. There’s just something kind of flat to me about characters who are always, in mind and body, fully engaged in a scene. It’s a delicate balance though because when you have a character perpetually preoccupied or whose memories are continually competing with the scene it can begin to make that character seem oddly hollow, just a vehicle for the author to dump out a lot of exposition or back story.” I think she hit it right on the money, since in the first paragraphs I despised Jack for thinking about his mistress while driving his teenaged daughter Lila to meet her first guide dog. Later I came to reluctantly acknowledge some good points, even admire him. Then I hated him again. And like that, back and forth. Because you know what: people are complicated, when we tell the truth about them. And Black tells us the truth.

So does Lila:

“Maybe I could have the first ever seeing-eye cat.” Lila crosses her arms. “Some real haughty feline with attitude.”
“You mean like you?”
But his daughter shakes her head. “No.” She turns her face toward the breeze of the open window, lifting her sunglasses. “No,” she repeats. “I’d want a guide cat who really doesn’t give a flying fuck.” She draws an audible breath through her nose. “Manure?”

It’s also a story laced with Lila’s black humor, such as her t-shirt printed with: “If you can read this T-shirt, maybe YOU can tell ME what it says.” But it’s Lila who delivers the take-home here, as she decides what to reveal, what not, and to whom.

“Tableau Vivant” (Georgia Review, Winter 2009)

So what choice did she have to but unbraid the different strands of love and learn devotion without desire again? Desire without devotion?

Every family has secrets; every family member has her own set of secrets, and there’s nothing like a family visit to expose the seams. It’s an intricate story about, among other things, the importance of retelling family stories over and over, just for the reassurance. I find this a difficult story to comment on, and I’m not sure why; I enjoyed it a great deal. Maybe the story itself says what needs to be said. I could talk about symbols and the passage of time, but I think I’ll just leave it at this, with a sad smile.

“Immortalizing John Parker” (available online at Freight Stories

And his brows have grown so bushy that if she were still his wife, she decides, she would insist that he deal with them—somehow. If necessary, she would cut them herself, in his sleep. She finds it ridiculous the way they trail down over his eyes, so one must look at him as though through an upside down, overgrown hedge. She wouldn’t be able to live with them, she’s sure. For a moment, she is sure. But then something else occurs to her. Maybe she would love them, she thinks. If she still loved him. Maybe she would want him as he is.
It’s a painful thought. The ravages of time rendered irrelevant by love.

Clara Feinberg is a portrait artist who for thirty years has been driven to study faces and reveal their secrets on canvas. But: “the paintings themselves upset her now. The act of painting them upsets her now.” It’s the analogue to death: both her portraits, and death, freeze us in a moment of time. And, at 70 years of age, it’s not like death is an abstract concept any more, especially after the recent death of the man she had an affair with, unbeknownst to his wife. Once, almost. Once, later on, in fact. After, of course, she’d thrown her own husband out for cheating.

But she has this portrait to paint, this John Parker, who seems… dulled. “The word isn’t dull. It’s dulled.… A process.” She normally doesn’t like direct eye contact with her portrait subjects, but “the only route through that dullness she had detected in John Parker, back to whatever had preceded it, would be through his gaze.”

Black brings these threads together with the issue of what to tell, what not, primary in both. It’s so rare to see an older woman – a real older woman, not a 40-year-old who’s called an “older woman” because the ideal age of our era is somehow absurdly considered to be 25 – revealed so fully. She has flaws, but she isn’t an old biddy. She has passions, but she isn’t sentimental. And she has some decisions to make. Did she make the right ones?

“Pine” (Colorado Review, Spring 2005)

… [H]e has been my yes-man for years and I, his yes-woman – which for all this time has meant that we weren’t allowed to disagree with each other… Kevin has long been my best friend, and this unquestioning affirmation of each other has formed the central tenet of our best friendship.
…But Kevin’s inherently agreeable nature ruined the sex for me….With Joe gone, I needed sex to be something more like a knock-down drag-out fight, one I could only win by fucking the living crap out of someone. And without having to think about making love. Or about love at all. Most importantly, not about love. And I couldn’t fuck the living crap out of Kevin; he was just too nice.

Claire and Heidi: two women – no, maybe the same woman in two different stages of adjustment. Heidi has adjusted to the loss of her leg, the sound of it on the kitchen floor, her husband’s hand on plastic knee. Claire has not adjusted to her widowhood at all. Claire explains to best-friend-husband-substitute Kevin: “Did I tell you this is her fourth leg? Her fifth, actually, if you count the first. The original limb.” The original limb, lost to cancer – just like Claire’s original husband. Heidi’s had half a lifetime and five different legs; Claire’s only had three years, and Kevin. So far. Yes, she botches it with Kevin, but I’m willing to bet Heidi’s experience with her first prosthesis wasn’t a picnic, either.

The opening scene in Heidi’s kitchen is terrific: Claire introduces us to Heidi by way of the sound Heidi’s prosthetic leg makes moving across the kitchen floor, and the steps Claire would take to mitigate that sound. Heidi’s way beyond the need to mitigate anything to do with her leg.

Black captures Claire’s “outsider” feel in the cooking scene perfectly: “I don’t really know Roger, I admit; and as if I have disqualified myself somehow, the tall woman allows her eyes to drift off me as she states to no one in particular: ‘Well, anyway.'” That’s as authentic as it gets; I’ve been in that scene. She also captures Claire’s widow’s envy in numerous ways throughout the piece (“‘I lost my leg to cancer, when I was sixteen,’ she said, catching me stare. I lost my husband to cancer when I was thirty-six.“), but nowhere more honestly and surprisingly than in her observations of Heidi and her husband at the kids’ soccer practice:

… I see Roger across the field place his hand on Heidi’s knee. It is a casual, marital gesture, except that it’s her senseless, artificial leg touches. He rests his palm on her as though she can feel him. Or as though that bloodless leg cannot disrupt any aspect of their bond. And Heidi sees the caress she cannot feel. She turns a little, smiles at him, and lays her hand over his. I look away and say nothing to Kevin. I make no jokes, no smart comments about Heidi and her feet.

But here’s where I start nit-picking (and I wonder if I’m just looking for flaws now, because, come on, every story I’ve read so far has been so pitch perfect): I wish the last two or three sentences had been edited out of that paragraph. To me, it’s a turn towards construct that continues for the rest of the piece, and finally culminates in exactly the conversation you’d expect between Claire and her not-boyfriend Kevin. That conversation, unlike the other conversations in the book, could come from some 80s Meg Ryan romcom. But that’s ok; it was one of the Black’s earlier stories. Her third, maybe fourth, leg, so to speak. And a pretty damn good third or fourth leg at that.

“Harriet Elliot” (One Story #104, 4/30/08)

We were taught tolerance by our Quaker teacher at every chance. There was God in each of us – even in those of us, like me, who had been raised to believe there was no God. …
When our parents asked us how the new girl was fitting in, we shrugged, knowing better than to share our unanimous judgment. We said she seemed okay. We tried to make our faces look as though we had found a glimpse of God inside of her.
As there was God in each of us. Sometimes I would try to find him there. At night, in my room, my eyes closed, escaping the unmistakable tones of an unending parental argument forcing its way up the stairwell through my door, I would stare inside myself… I would look until I slept for the God I had been told did not exist.

I loved this coming-of-age (well, coming-of-something) story; after I read Black’s One Story Q&A, I loved it even more. It’s an emotionally satisfying story – as the narrator finds God, the capacity to believe, within herself – and a technically intriguing one, playing with voice and person. The last sentence is almost Borgean – then again, I have been a little stuck on Borges and ideas of interpretive reality lately, so I may be reading way past the text, but it seems to me there are multiple readings here. Black does say, “For this story to work, it really has to end with that final blink” in her Q&A; it certainly does. That final blink is magic.

I feel justified in calling this a coming-of-age story, though the main character is only 10 years old, because that’s what it felt like, culminating in a growth spurt rather than a mere epiphany. In her “Conversation” with Karen Russell included at the end of the collection (almost, but not quite, an interview; very informative), Black defines coming-of-age stories, and their importance to her:

I think of coming-of-age stories as narratives in which the balance between innocence and experience shifts, and I absolutely believe my stories fit that definition…. [W]hat adult life reveals is that our capacity to perceive complexity always outpaces our ability to understand it, so life never actually seems simpler. If anything, quite the opposite. And it’s that process that I am drawn to as I write – the business of life becoming more and more complicated and all of us working to keep up with that. So I am drawn to the points in life at which that process is exposed.

~~Robin Black, “A Conversation Between Karen Russell and Robin Black”

The Conversation (which I’ll return to it later; I love books that include supplementary information) is looking at the older-adult stories at that point, but I think it applies to this story as well. It’s also a “stranger comes to town” set in fourth grade. I didn’t even realize the first-person narrator was unnamed until I started writing notes on the story; it’s almost a first-person plural narration for quite some time, in fact; I’m pretty sure that’s deliberate, as we’re introduced to Harriet, the oddball newcomer who doesn’t fit in at all.

I just read The Ice Palace for a class, and though the girls there are older and there’s a very different synergy between them, this story recalled it. The narrator befriends Harriet, learns from her, and is changed. I also greatly appreciated the setting of the progressive Quaker school; all that effort to foster respect, community, and individualism, and yet the odd girl is shunned, just like in any fourth grade classroom.

“Gaining Ground” (Alaska Quarterly Review, Fall/Winter 2003)

My dad died on the night my bathwater ran with an electric current in it. Or maybe it was the other way around. My water ran electric on the night my father died. In some ways that sounds better, more poetic, I guess. For one thing, it scans. Ba-duh ba-duh ba-duh ba-duh ba-duh ba-duh ba-duh. But it isn’t truly accurate as to what it felt like at the time. It felt more like the first way.

This was Black’s first published story. It’s surprising how different the style is from every other story in the collection: short rhythmic bursts instead of smooth lyricism, flat-out sarcasm and confusion instead of thoughtfulness and occasional humor. That isn’t to say it’s any less thoughtful; it’s just a different kind of thoughtful.

Like many of the stories, if you think you’ve got the story figured out by the first paragraph quoted above, you’ll find out in the second paragraph that you’re wrong about everything:

Harris says the whole worry is stupid, the whole question of how to put it, because it makes it sound like I’m debating some point of causality, as if the two events were in some way related. Linked. Which they obviously were not. The water ran electric because the house was not properly grounded. Because my electrician is an asshole. And always has been. And ought to be shot. Or at the very least not be an electrician anymore. My father died because he walked in front of a train. On purpose. Like in a movie. Like Anna Karenina. Because he was a whack job. Mentally ill. And always had been. No connection.

We’re all trying to gain ground. In the Conversation, Black calls this her “unintentional manifesto…I think that the subtext there is me saying: I am going to try to make sense of the world and of my own existence by telling stories.” The narrator tries to make sense of the craziness of her father and the electricity in her home water supply by phrasing things in scanning lines, finally coming up with a poem, as her ex-husband looks on with a sneer. The style is disjointed, and the story elements don’t quite fit together in a neat little package, but that’s rather the point, isn’t it?

“A Country Where You Once Lived” (available online from Hunger Mountain, Winter 2009)

… But what Cathleen said in jest resonated with him. It’s strangely appealing to imagine himself and his daughter slaughtering a bird, engaging together in so blessedly impolite and uncivil an act, making it impossible to keep the niceties so unremittingly nice after that, impossible to ignore life’s darker, more difficult side. And it’s more than that. They would be killing something. It’s fitting somehow. He’s hesitant to pin the symbolism down, to let the thoughts go very far, but he’s aware of a longing in himself that he hadn’t thought possible. The desire to solve a problem without working it through for once, the hope that a ritual might do all the labor for him.

In her self-interview for The Nervous Breakdown, Black said she’s surprised by critical reactions including words like “brutal” or phrases like “not for the faint of heart.” I’m guessing those reactions were thinking of metaphorical, psychic brutality – you know, like we all have in our lives from time to time – but that word might’ve also come up in connection with this story’s planned father-daughter outing to slaughter a chicken, a ritual dad seems to view as a cross between burying the hatchet and scapegoating. That ritual is, however, superseded by a far more challenging event (in her Conversation, she explains she knew reconciliation over a chicken beheading would’ve been “capital B Bad and capital H Hokey”; she’s right; by this story, she’d moved on to her fifth leg) and Black returns to the heart of this collection: what to tell, what to keep secret, from those we love.

I’m very fond of the train imagery that opens the story and is echoed near the close:

… It’s one of those trips that seems to carry you much farther than the time might imply. By around the halfway point the scenery has shaken off all evidence of the city, all evidence, really, of the past century or two.… Jeremy is riding backwards so is watching it all recede, and the sensation is oddly saddening.… He knows well that for all the brain’s cellular elegance, it has too this kind of simple, simplistic aspect to it. Leaving is sad. Even just the illusion of leaving is sad. As each view receipts, his eyes are tricked and in turn trick his brain: he is leaving… leaving… leaving… of course he feels sad.

I’m so glad this story is available online; it’s a journey of its own, with wonderful sights to see along the way, including the backstory of the daughter’s youth, and the interesting interpretation of Skype-sex: “We’ve never experienced the pleasures of absence.” In the same self-interview mentioned above, Black says she started writing about one character, but ended up wondering about another. So it seems the story itself was on a journey.

“…Divorced, Beheaded, Survived” (Bellevue Literary Review, Fall 2004)

I was afraid my brother’s face would become a fearful thing for them. And maybe for me as well, with kids of my own. So I put him in the dresser drawer I use for the few really fine scarves and gloves I possess, the softest place for storage I could find.
But of course the children have always known that I had a brother and that he died. A brother named Terrance, Terry. They know about him without my ever having had to tell either of them. Uncle Terry, he would have been. It’s family information. The kind that travels in the air the children breathe.

I was ready to love this story before I read a word of it, just from the title; after I read it, I loved it more. It’s shorter than the other stories in the collection (Black mentions in several interviews that she writes long stories), and maybe in some ways the least developed; the path from beginning to end is fairly straight, with few surprises. But as a meditation on loss, it’s beautiful; if you’ve ever lost anyone – and who hasn’t? – it’ll make you cry as you nod along. BLR, who first published it in 2004, has an online guide. Study guide, actually, but this isn’t a story you have to study; just breathe.

“Some Women Eat Tar” (available online at $.99 for iOS or Adobe DRM )

“People say things to me that make no sense at all,” she told her mother on the phone that afternoon. “No restrictions? You should see me. What does that even mean?”
“Your problem, Nina,” her mother replied, “is that you are unable to contextualize discourse. Within the context of weighing six hundred pounds and being kicked brutally from within, you are free as a bird. Welcome to motherhood.”

And now, amongst all the preceding poignancy and pathos, a complete change of pace in the form of a hilarious pregnancy story. If you’ve ever been pregnant, or have shared bed and board with someone who was pregnant, you’ll love it too. I’ve kept as far away from pregnancy and the results thereof as possible, but even I loved it. Still, I have to admit, it’s a pretty thin story; it’s more of an excuse to string pregnancy jokes together. But they’re such great jokes, and it’s such a great change of pace (Black is one versatile writer) I’m more than ok with that.

The pregnancy was Artie’s idea; too bad it’s Nina’s body. She isn’t sure she likes the doctor Artie picked out: a “young, pretty woman” with “perfect hair and makeup,” and a sign reading “Because I’m the Pediatrician, That’s Why” on her desk, a woman “who made Nina feel invisible from the moment they met. Especially when she repeated the phrase Nipple Confusion and Artie nodded knowingly. For just a second there, Nina thought she would rather steal her own car, jump on a plane, and take on a new identity than hear her husband discussed her potentially confusing nipples with this girl.”

Then we have Nina’s job:

She took on extra work from the greeting card company where she had freelanced for years, doubling the number of witty/touching/rhyming/not rhyming captions she produced for them each week. Her just-out-of-college editor at Rainwater Greetings thought it was way cool that pregnancy really did bring on creative bursts.
…She wrote a total of eighty-seven salutations/congratulations/condolences – an inordinate number of which ended with the phrase Believe me, I understand – between weeks eighteen and twenty-eight…

I’m willing to bet Black has held, or knows someone who held, a similar job. Nina’s response to the doctor’s instruction to “notify us immediately if the baby stops kicking” is pure writer/editor/usage geek: “Shouldn’t that be if you no longer feel the baby kick? How do you feel someone stop kicking you?”

Plot-wise, the story moves along with Nina’s crush on the florist. But as I said, it’s thin. And, as I said, I didn’t care; I loved every word of it.

“A History of the World”

As a child Kate suspected that it was her own umbilical cord, and not his, that had wrapped itself around Arthur’s neck, depriving him of oxygen for just long enough. No one ever told her this. No one ever told her much of anything about why Arthur spoke the way he did why his otherwise razor-sharp brain seemed to have these holes in it, lacunae into which words would disappear. Their parents chose silence on the subject of Arthur’s odd silences as the kindest and maybe the easiest course and left it to their daughter to glean what little she might from bits of private conversations slipping out from under closed doors, or from relatives who gossiped, neighbors who thought they knew.

And here we are, back at the heart of things, with what we keep secret and what we reveal, and how our history affects us forever. Kate and Arthur are sixty-five-year-old twins, in Italy to celebrate their shared birthday. It’s literally a guilt trip – and it only gets guiltier. I’m afraid this wasn’t my favorite story of the book; it read much to “long” for me. Yet when I asked myself, as I do when a story seems “too long,” what should be cut, I could see how everything was necessary to the piece as a whole. Chalk it up to a matter of personal preference, and probably my mood at the time.

I can see why it was chosen to end the collection. The final scene is glorious: a history of the world from Eve on, drawn in flower petals along the streets of this Italian village. Forever, just waiting for the lady with the broom to sweep it all away at the end of the day. The Infiorata, Flower Festival, is a real thing, by the way, taking place in many Italian cities. The symbolism, the connection to the story, is unmistakable.

In her Conversation, the section on coming-of-age stories in fact, Black refers to ending the collection with this: “The appearance of Adam and Eve in the flower scene at the end of ‘The History of the World’ is a kind of clue to the fact that everything that comes before in the book really has been about the double-edged nature of the acquisition of knowledge and the accompanying loss of innocence.”

As I read through the first three or four stories in this collection, I wondered, “These are extraordinary; why aren’t more people talking about this book?” And I realized people were talking about it back in 2010 when it was originally published (and when it appeared on the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award shortlist), but I was doing something else back then and consigned it to a bookmark in my “highly-recommended-library-available” list, where it waited patiently until about a week ago when I felt the need, after a long stretch of reading novels for classes, to revel in short stories again (I’m suffering withdrawal, thanks to PEN/O.Henry delaying publication from Spring to Fall). I chose it now from my very long highly-recommended list because, among other more sensible reasons, I loved the cover. Yes, I am that shallow. That shallowness becomes stupidity when you realize there are multiple covers, and by the way the UK cover is awful enough to deserve Isobel Montgomery’s scorn in her Guardian review. The cover doesn’t matter; what’s under the cover is wonderful.

I envision the ending of a story as the point at which I complete the process by handing the story over to the reader. It belongs to her by then. It’s common for people to recommend starting stories in mid-action or in media res, but there’s at least as good an argument for ending them that way too. There’s a kind of generosity to not closing down a story entirely, a way that includes the reader, and I aspire to that.

~~Robin Black, “A Conversation Between Karen Russell and Robin Black”

I’ve said before (most recently, by coincidence, in a post about a story by Karen Russell, with whom Black’s Conversation takes place) that I like stories that project into the future. I can’t define exactly what I mean by that, other than what it isn’t: it’s not an unfinished story, or a lady-or-the-tiger ending, but an ending that lets me imagine a future – several possible futures – for the characters. I’m especially happy to see Black has the same idea. Most of the stories invited such projection; a few demanded it.

I very much enjoyed this collection. If I seem to have nitpicked a few times, well, that’s my way of keeping myself honest, making sure I’m not being carried away by a beautiful read. Also: I need to make myself aware, on a regular basis, that a few flaws are inevitable, acceptable, and even desirable – in people, and in stories.

Black has a novel, Life Drawing, due out in 2014: “a fierce, honest, and moving portrait of a marriage—the betrayals and intimacies, the needs and regrets, the secrets that sustain love and the ones that threaten to destroy it.”

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