Seiche by Stuart Dybek, 2009
The magic trick:
Balancing his lonely-in-love story with examples of characters with more pressing life-and-death problems
I spent a good portion of yesterday’s post on Dybek’s “Tosca’” claiming that the author’s collection, Paper Lantern, was a dish best served as separate little snacks. The stories, taken at once, will overwhelm you, I cried. So today scoff as you see me praising the way “Seiche,” the second story in the collection, plays brilliantly off its preceding story, “Tosca.” Yep, I’m totally contradicting what I said yesterday. Oh well. Too bad.
“Tosca” takes place in the rarefied air of high art and intellectual culture. The story can’t seem to decide if it wants to glorify that lifestyle or mock it. And maybe that’s the point, but “Seiche” ends that debate by providing a handful of extreme counterpoints. Whereas the characters in “Tosca” are living their lives “like an opera,” as they say in the story, Dybek gives us a glimpse of several people in “Seiche” who are living life on the edge because of fate, because of bad luck.
The relationship in “Seiche” (there’s always the nostalgia for a lost relationship in a Dybek story, right?) isn’t torn apart because of good old fashioned American middle-class selfishness, it’s ended by the death of Nisa’s grandfather and the family/religious obligations she has in war-torn Beirut. The story then jolts into different cases our social-worker narrator is working. Women on welfare. Children with life-threatening diseases. Crime. Poverty. No hope. Just waiting.
Suddenly, the world of “Tosca” seems very, very silly. Paper Lantern’s endless series of naval-gazing trips down memory lane now feels knowingly indulgent. What’s truly remarkable is that the story still deals in the author’s standard bag of tricks – heavy duty metaphor, symbolism, mystical vibe, longing (bordering on obsession) for solving the riddles of the past. But “Seiche,” as he often did in his jawdroppingly good The Coast Of Chicago collection, balances the nostalgia fantasy with the very scary margins of real life. And that’s quite a trick on Dybek’s part.
“You ain’t fooling nobody, Mr. Cook County,” she said. “I seen a lot of your kind, poking your nose in on folks you don’t know nothing about, don’t care nothing about, never will know nothing about, and one day you ain’t here no more, moved on to something better, and there’s another fool come to give me his Mr. Cook County card, no damn different than the fool before knocking at the door like he knows something.”