- Dizzying Heights
Anaphora Literary Press
122 Pages; Print, $20.00
Falling and Other Stories is much more innovative than it is traditional, yet the opening novella—Falling—and the six stories that follow are all connected by a thematic rendering of the very components long associated with constructing a traditional short story: rising action, climax, and the inevitable denouement. Falling opens with the line "The ascent begins" and ends with an image of one of the characters "falling," setting the stage for the entire collection's exploration of ascents and descents—literal and figurative—in the lives of an array of characters who are shaped, motivated, and sometimes undone by the intersection of memory and the present, a junction often fraught with physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual dangers.
Author Ben Stoltzfus, Professor Emeritus of Comparative Literature and Creative Writing at the University of California, Riverside, is a prolific writer across a variety of genres. He has published five novels, including Romoland (2016)—a pictonovel with his wife, artist Judith Palmer, a collection of short stories, two translations of Alain Robbe-Grillet, and many monographs of literary criticism. His literary and scholarly knowledge is vast and apparent throughout the collection as characters often cite and quote, contemplate, and sometimes argue about some of the world's greatest and most influential thinkers: Sigmund Freud, Jean-Paul Sartre, Charles Baudelaire, Marcel Proust, and Albert Camus, to name just a few. When these ideas and the dialogues inspired by them appear, they serve as a backdrop to the questions, crises, and traumas of the characters' lives.
But some pieces rely on less cerebral and more tangible backdrops. In the novella Falling, a fire is burning in the desert where two couples—Juan and Ellen, and Marie and Al—live. The dryness and danger of the burning landscape mirrors both the dull and the inflammatory emotions the characters struggle to resolve, ignite, or subdue; it also intensifies the mystery and threat of (and to) the other creatures that dwell there—spiders, including tarantulas and black widows, snakes and foxes, lizards and wasps, broken insects that are embedded in broken walls, and even more gentle inhabitants such as rabbits and roadrunners. The insects and animals also recur as a parallel to the human characters' efforts to call upon the kind of intuitive responses that could save them:
The wasp and the tarantula move apart, clasp, unclasp, writhe, twist, fight and separate until, with deadly speed, the stinger thrusts through the hairs, injects its venom and the spider, staggers, lurches and falls.
Survival of the fittest. And the two couples in Falling experience versions of the wasp and tarantula's battle. They are all unhappy in their marriages, yet somewhat reluctant to leave them: they "clasp, unclasp, writhe, twist" in varying degrees and interpretations that lead to the lurch and inevitable fall. Marie, who misses her homeland of France desperately, "laments her life and deplores her husband"; Ellen, who is beautiful, "goads, insults and castigates Juan," an orange grove owner who loves to hike and complains, "Ellen is always in a mood. … Why can't she just leave me alone?… When I'm at work, I'm not devoting enough attention to her. When we make love, she says I'm inadequate"; Al, a race car driver, tells Ellen, "Marie drinks too much. She's a hypochondriac and she's afraid of lightning" and when Ellen asks him how he can stand it, he replies, "I can't."
These levels of despair drive the characters away from their partners and into the arms of each other's: Ellen and Al are having an affair, and Marie and Juan take an intimate, life-changing horseback ride together. There are other characters in Falling who deepen the narrative—the therapist Dr. Grubbs, described as a "false prophet"; Marie and Al's twin sons, David and John; Theresa. who takes care of them; and another more mysterious being who offers and resists identification at the same time: "you."
Sometimes "you" appears to be one of the characters we already know, who the narrator or author...