Babylon and Other Stories
No happy endings, no relief, no resolutions--such is the harsh, pleathery reality of life according to Alix Ohlin. In one brief, anguished fiction after another, the Lafayette College professor peeks through a different portal into a Babylon that isn't, a sour Todd Solondz-esque America where no one eventually gets what they want--or away from who they don't want to be--and the climax lurks several nonexistent pages after each story ends. That Ohlin illustrates her glimpses into lives devoid of joy, hope, and/or closure with such vivid, microscopic intensity only deepens the pervading sense of outright despair this book exudes. The arrival of every successive, unsatisfying conclusion sends you racing into the next tale, jonesing for a more saccharine finish.
Plagued at home by a shrill, tormented wife and a troubled problem child, mild-mannered biologist Hang Higginbottom finds solace in studying the mating rituals of guppies. When a belligerent, better-funded colleague stomps on his last nerve, he punches the offender's lights out and writes the incident up in third-person scientific-paper format ("An Analysis of Some Troublesome Recent Behavior"). Kevin, a morose 8-year-old whose parents' union is slowly but surely disintegrating, hurls himself into piano lessons they can't afford, practicing on piano keys drawn on paper in his room ("Simple Exercises for the Beginning Student"). Computer jockey Robert falls helplessly in love for the first time, only to learn post-engagement ring that everything he'd believed about his fiancée is a compulsive lie, including her name. Despite the likelihood of further heartbreaks to come, he can't bring himself to let her go ("Babylon"). While planning and enduring her mother-in-law's extravagant, sure-to-be-short-lived fourth nuptials, Nathalie realizes that her own terse marriage is as good as dead in "I Love to Dance at Weddings": "Next to her, Nick smells of cologne and sweat and shrimp canapés and wine; the rhythm of his breath as familiar as her own. She knows the two of them won't dance tonight. They'll stand side by side, as if standing guard, waiting until the others are through."
The anomaly in this collection, "A Theory of Entropy," follows Claire, who struggles with jealousy when her entropy expert boyfriend's young, female book editor comes to stay for an extended working visit. The story's arc isn't anywhere as predictable as it looks, and Ohlin delicately, almost imperceptibly, steers its course in an unexpected direction: Claire ultimately comes to realize that a key component of who she thinks she is as a person is false, and in the end is happier for it. Ohlin, hopefully, will turn out to be one of those writers who checks back in on her creations occasionally. She has rendered her characters' circumstances with such intimacy that once you've met them, it's impossible not to wonder what'll happen to them next.