Christopher Linforth

Christopher Linforth's Directory (Otis Books) is perhaps at first glance a more conventional work, at least in that the form it takes, a collection of stories meant to cohere as a whole, is recognizable enough. Even as a gathering of connected flash fictions it is not unfamiliar, although the connections are through echo, variation, and point of view rather than more direct continuities of character or setting. Loosely similar situations recur, with subtly shifting characters and events, all of them narrated in the first-person plural point view--usually from the perspective of a set of twins or triplicates who relate their often troubled experiences (especially as children, when they are at times on the tormentor's end of bullying behavior, likely the consequence of trauma.)

This extended experiment with the first-person plural is both the most impressive achievement of Directory and its central unifying device (that it succeeds so well at the latter being no small part of its achievement). While the "we" narrator is a kind of unifying character that in a sense acts as the protagonist not just of the individual characters but of the book as a whole, this plural narrator is not strictly speaking a character at all but a literally disembodied voice whose blunt recitations of anecdote-sized exploits animate the stories:

Our misdeeds--let's start with those. We made our old man piss his pants. He limped away, sopped the urine with a kitchen rag and kept his hand over his crotch. He swore at us, said we were no good since our mother left. We laughed. We didn't care. We filched his bottom-shelf vodka and terrorized the neighborhood, rode our dirt bikes up and down the road, burning rubber outside of Mrs. Macomber's house. She watched us from her bedroom window. Her flash of silvery hair a clear sign we had her spooked. . . .

Much of the first half of the book is comprised of episodes like this, relating less than admirable behavior by a trio (in some cases duo) of young boys who are also clearly from unstable families. Thus while the point of view provides a formal (if unorthodox) unity throughout the book, the identity of the narrator(s) fluctuates, as do the particulars of each vignette. Some of them are narratives, but some are more impalpable memories, others more like mini-sagas compressed into 500-word recaps, some indeed approaching prose poetry in their lyricism, such as "Belief," a reverie-like story which begins, "On the day we flee town, we will want the neighborhood to know what happened. We will tell stories about our stepfather to the kind and not-so-kind men on our street, to the cops who size us up to see if we are underage, turning tricks, will turn a trick with them." Escape must remain in the future, but the story concludes with the assurance, "Any day now we will shout."

The second half of Directory contains more thematically varied stories that take exclusive focus away from the narrator, such as "The Temple," chronicling the arrival of a "pastor" who converts a tenement building into a mysterious temple, into which people enter but don't necessarily come back out. Panhandlers go inside but leave "with expressions of fear." "Zia" and "Showtime" are about the "we" narrator's sister, although the brothers lurk at the edges, their adolescent curiosity aroused by her near-exotic appeal. "Layover" focuses on "our shared wife" during a layover in an airport caused by ash from a volcanic eruption, into which the wife disappears at the story's conclusion. If the stories in the first half of the book create a disturbing but essentially realistic version of family dysfunction and adolescent defiance, the second half takes the exercise in first-person plural narration into different kinds of situations, more fanciful and extreme, extending into the narrator's later years. By the book's end, it is more explicitly suggested that this narrator may be a single individual after all, the various episodes perhaps representing multiple embellished iterations of this individual's life.

Although to say that Directory has the unity and focus of a novel would not be entirely misleading, to call it a "novel in stories" would really erase what is distinctive about the book, its use of the story-fragment to both exploit brevity as a self-sufficient narrative strategy and to organize a series of such brief stories so that the result is a work that has structural coherence without strictly conforming to a pre-established form--something independent of both story and novel. Perhaps we could say as well that Rothes in William Atlas has also created a work of fiction with the characteristics of both short story and novel that doesn't comfortably belong in either category. Of the two, Directory seems the work whose departures from the norm most readily suggest future possibilities for writers who might further explore its hybrid form, but certainly neither of these are books one could imagine appearing on the seasonal lists from the risk-averse publishing houses of the mainstream "book business."


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