- Eternal Returns
Moon City Press
216 Pages; Print, $14.9
The stories in Kim Magowan's collection Undoing suspend characters in states of dissolution—adultery, divorce, forgetting, impossible decisions—and contemplate whether the process of undoing itself can be reversed. This double meaning of undoing, to ruin your life or to take it all back, creates an atmosphere of brutal fatalism and brutal hope. Through this indeterminacy, each story is able to hold, in intense compression, the best and worst possible scenarios, the characters' very best and worst selves, as capacious as experience itself and subject to eternal revision.
In "When in Rome," the introductory story from which the collection takes its title, would-be lovers salvage their marriage and their extramarital desire, their incommensurate states, through the openness of story. They relegate their potential affair to an "alternate reality," an imaginative space in which their pasts can be rehashed, replaced:
We are in Rome. Why Rome? Because it is not the place where either of us live… Perhaps, in the kind of eternal return of dreams and stories, because Rome is where I lost my virginity, and I will undo that night…by replacing it with you. So, we are in Rome. You stand in front of me. Your arms are at your sides, or perhaps you lightly press my shoulders, and you look at me. But I do not meet your eyes. I am concentrating on undoing, one by one, the mock mother-of-pearl buttons of your shirt, to reach your invisible and secret skin.
In this passage, the combination of the potential ("perhaps") with the declarative ("We are in Rome" and "You stand in front of me") and tangible detail ("mock mother-of-pearl buttons") valorizes fiction as its own form of truth. Between two unsatisfying choices, characters preserve the path untaken through the stories they tell, which in this case, saves them from destroying themselves and their young families, if it does not protect them from wistfulness. "When in Rome" is bookended thematically by the final story, "This Much." in which a couple conceals their imminent separation so they can watch their daughter walk down the aisle, holding hands, divorcing but not yet divorced, eternally in-between until, unless, they choose to tell the news.
Even when the reader can assume that the moment of grace is short-lived—that the characters will make the wrong decisions—the choice to end the stories before the turning point forgives without forgetting that they are capable of doing harm, whether by transgression or neglect. The story "On Air" ends with Alice observing her ex-husband, finally, for a moment, pay attention to their anorexic daughter, after neglecting her in favor of his new baby. Upon Alice's insistence, he looks at Laurel: "She watches the expressions (annoyance, perplexity, then concern) shift and slip across her ex-husband's face. 'I'm looking,' he says at last." The narrator knows Nathan's concern, and this elegant instance of seeing his daughter will not last because the narrator knows Nathan. Even his expression "shift and slip," is transient across his face. He is inclined to boredom, the parent who "refused to read" Curious George to baby Laurel because he found it tedious: "So boring, that book!… Nathan treated parenting as a menu, from which he could choose the entertaining items." [End Page 27] Such a father will not likely attend to his daughter's harrowing long-term illness. The story lets us know that, but kindly does not overwrite his concern with his inability to sustain it. Preserving people at their best selves even as they know better, the omniscience treats its characters with the knowing patience with which we treat our intimates: loving without idealizing. Like these generous stories, we may choose to remember our people in the moment before, when they could have been better.
The gift of authoring one's own experience, in Magowan's world, comes with the possibility of redemption but also the cruelty of erasure. In "Palimpsest," a teacher writes lessons on a chalkboard only at the cost of those...