Themes of identity and belonging disturb the calm surface of Wendy Brandmark’s collection of short stories, which are set in Denver, New York and Boston in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. Many of the stories concern characters who have been displaced geographically and emotionally: young or old, successful or unsuccessful, their lives have slipped their moorings.
For some, it is because they have left part of themselves behind in the Old World, where memories of fear and suffering coexist with recollections of family and personal authenticity. For others – particularly the young – it is because they have moved to a different city and found or lost friends or lovers.
Around two thirds of the stories collected in He Runs the Moon were originally published separately elsewhere, yet they share similar preoccupations and images. Many characters have extraordinarily rich dreams that embody fears and dangers and desires in ambiguous, threatening fragments. And people are always trying on clothes: those in the opening tale, The Denver Ophelia, for example, are entwined in a relentless process of self-fashioning via the second-hand clothes they select and discard at the local Salvation Army store.
Garments slip on and off like used skins; choices influence states of mind, relationships and their outcomes. And it’s not just clothes: in My Red Mustang, psychological and emotional investment in a stalled relationship is measured by the unreliability of an aging car; in Where Have You Been? it is furnishings that form the matrix of effective possibilities and attachments.
Some collections of short stories are a raging ocean, full of crests and troughs. Others are a meandering river that flows through a changing landscape. For me, He Runs the Moon is a sea at dead calm beneath a cloudless sky. There is not a great deal of variety to catch our eye; mood and style rarely change. Thus, the more memorable stories are those that depart in some way from the pervasive tone of cool detachment.
I am particularly struck by Irony, one of the Denver stories that appears in the first part of the book. More conventional in some ways than its neighbours, it is also more emotionally expressive and involving. The Denver section has an air of academic exercise/journal submission about it (lots of present tense and/or first person perspective), especially as the first three stories concern creative writing students. Irony’s tale of a sexually predatory male teacher of creative writing transcends itself and becomes a symbolic rejection of patriarchal authority. It seemed to me that the narrator was telling herself something here.
The collection ends (almost) with two of the more expressive stories: Fairy Godmother and Vagabond. As with Irony, these are stories whose emotional resonances are palpable. Fairy Godmother’s concluding words – ‘… her warm house with the rose walls and the ashtray shaped just like the Bay of Naples’ – are (for reasons I won’t reveal here) a sad and joyful marker of constancy and loyalty. Vagabond is in part about the transformative power of personal authenticity.
Its many characters are people for whom we care and who have the power to move us. Existence, we are reminded, is simple, which is why it can be unbearable. Literature complexifies life and, in so doing, consoles us.
Sadly, He Runs the Moon contains a few avoidable confusions. Some of the writing is seriously under-punctuated: a liberal addition of necessary commas would make all the difference to sentences I had to read two or three times. Similarly, there is some ambiguous use of personal pronouns in places where the insertion of characters’ names would have avoided misunderstanding.
The omission of running headlines is an additional irritation for readers who like to look ahead to see if they have enough time to reach the end of a story. For the same reason, the titles of stories could be more typographically emphatic than they are.
Wendy Brandmark has also written two novels: The Angry Gods and The Stray American.
This guest post was contributed by Jack Messenger. Jack has been an avid reader since he was a child, and that love of books carried over as he advanced in a career for major publishers as an editor and project manager. You can find his four short story collection here.