‘Tosca’ by Stuart Dybek

Portrait Stuart Dybek

Tosca by Stuart Dybek, 2012

The magic trick:

Jumping story to story, character to character

We’re talking paper lanterns this week at the SSMT blog – Paper Lantern, the recent Stuart Dybek story collection. It reminds me a little bit of listening to Phil Spector’s classic wall-of-sound production. His ’60s girl-group singles rank as just about the most exciting pop music ever made. The songs explode out of the speakers, and if it sounds like 56 pianos playing the same thing all at once, it’s because that’s probably precisely what it is. They are three-minute masterpieces. Try listening to these pocket operas consecutively, though, and you may have another reaction: exhaustion. A Phil Spector album – essentially a dozen of those manic singles played one after the other after the other – is akin to being bludgeoned in the head by a bag full of transistor radios (which, given Phil’s fate, is a fittingly violent end).

I’ve lost the plot here a bit, but the point is Stuart Dybek’s stories are similarly brilliant. They operate in an emotional and lyrical realm no other writers I know of (again, please consider my limited knowledge when you hear me make such bold statements) can get to so consistently. He replicates the mythology of memory in a way that is so true to life it almost seems otherworldly, which is probably because the truth about our memories is that they only very occasionally represent real life. Wrap your brain around the logic of that sentence, and you’ll see that I’m arguing that the stories of Stuart Dybek are in their way more lifelike than life itself. That’s really weird. And certainly impressive.

Even farther from the plot now, I will finally declare Dybek to be the Phil Spector of the literary world. His stories slam you in the face with a verbal wall of sound. They are heavily rendered and yet raw at the same time. And also like those Spector singles, their blunt perfection is wearying when digested consecutively. I’m not sure I can recommend taking this Paper Lantern collection on in one week’s time, even as the stories are unified and familial. Best to take a story in here and there over the course of a year, or maybe a lifetime.

(First rule of the SSMT blog: no revisions. It’s hard enough to read 300 stories a year, let alone toss a few paragraphs together about each one. Not to mention finding the author headshot in a Google image search. No, there’s no revisions. No editing. No looking back. That is why you just got blasted with the chaos of the last four paragraphs.)

Anyway, “Tosca” opens the collection and it’s vintage Dybek. It begins and ends with an elegant execution scene. It bounces back and forth between anecdote. Even by his own schizophrenic standards, this one is a particularly jumpy bean, flitting between memories, scenes and characters so fast it’s difficult to decide who the story wants to be about. I’m still not sure. I think it’s about art. I think it’s about pretension. I think it’s about emotional reality. I think I can’t believe I just typed the words “emotional reality.” These Dybek stories do strange things to you, man. I’m not even kidding. Let this post be evidence. It’s going to be a fun week. And that’s quite a trick on Dybek’s part.

The selection:



On command the firing squad aims at the man backed against a full-length mirror. The mirror once hung in a bedroom, but now it’s cracked and propped against a dumpster in an alley. The condemned man has refused the customary last cigarette but accepted as a hood the black slip that was carelessly tossed over a corner of the mirror’s frame. The slip still smells faintly of a familiar fragrance.

Through his rifle sight, each sweating, squinting soldier in the squad can see his own cracked reflection aiming back at him.

What do you think about this story? As always, join the conversation in the comments section below, on SSMT Facebook or on Twitter @ShortStoryMT.


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