Things of This World

Reviewed by Tina Northrup

Cary Fagan’s The Old World and Alice Petersen’s Worldly Goods are short-story collections that explore how the things we own collect memories and inspire elaborate fictions.

The Old World is an effervescent collection inspired by thirty-five photographs that once were lost; they now find themselves given new life through the stories Fagan has spun. Flip through the pages of the book and you will find photographs of adolescents drinking punch at a house party, a sombre boy in a two-piece suit holding a guitar, blighted trees, a lapdog dancing for a treat, a woodworking shop full of chairs, and numerous portraits of people whose lives inspire reinvention now that the pictures have been dissociated from their subjects.

Fagan gives himself enormous range by having each story spring from a lost and found photograph. The tone of the writing varies considerably from one narrative to the next, with some stories channelling Franz Kafka’s mordant absurdity and others evoking the emotive insight of Alice Munro. Each story intrigues; not one of them flops. That may be because Fagan’s method guarantees readers the pleasure of discovering what the author’s imagination will do with each of the photographs that herald the stories. It’s a lot of fun to look at a picture and ask, What tale will he spin from this? The collection makes it easy to enjoy a lively imagination at work.

Petersen’s Worldly Goods starts strong with a story in which an aging man slips on his basement stairs and must wait, immobilized, for help to come. Looking up at a record player that sits collecting dust on a nearby shelf, he recalls the party that led to the destruction of the first record player he ever owned—a party that also produced a narrative that he has told and retold throughout his life, keeping alive the memory of an old infatuation while occasionally departing radically from the truth. The story does a fine job of channelling the spirit of the epigraph that Petersen lifts from Irène Némirovsky’s Les Biens de ce monde—a passage in which an old woman returning to Paris in wartime explains that she is going to collect a set of curtains passed down from her mother. Petersen might just as easily have taken her epigraph from Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz, as Levi is even more sharply attuned to the ways in which personal belongings come to be extensions of our selves.

Many of the stories in Worldly Goods explore this phenomenon, and they often succeed in limning the ways in which human intimacies can be shaped and then ruptured or preserved by objects that come to carry special meaning. There are times, however, when the stories offer less insight into our human conditions. “A Nice, Clean Copy” is one example. In it, an exceptional discovery at a second-hand bookstore catalyzes a train of thought and consequent conversation that make a husband realize that his wife of many years is more strange to him than he’d realized. Although the story is engaging, it’s difficult not to feel after reading it that one has simply been given James Joyce’s “The Dead” in a new guise, and, once that thought has occurred, it’s difficult not to feel that Petersen’s story pales by comparison. These moments are rare, however, and Worldly Goods offers much to mull over and appreciate.

This review “Things of This World” originally appeared in Eclectic Mix Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 234 (Autumn 2017): 148-149.

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