Saturday, October 30, 2021

The Shell Collector: a very short review

About four years ago I read Anthony Doerr's All The Light We Cannot See, and loved it. It's not for everyone, but it worked for me. Doerr has written other works, including other more recent works, but I decided to go back to the start and explore Doerr's early work, reading his short story collection from more than two decades ago: The Shell Collector: Stories.

I don't read short stories very often, but I love the format. The limited space forces an immediacy and urgency that draws you into each story quickly and deeply. In these stories, although they vary widely in their actual length, Doerr takes this urgency to extremes. He cuts and pares and replaces descriptions with hints, and even replaces hints with omissions, so that you stumble breathlessly across a gap, go back and forth over the gap several times, realize it was deliberate, and realize that you've filled in the gap yourself and indeed he didn't have to tell that part. Several times the story ends on the precipice of resolution, and Doerr is content to drop you off and allow you to compose your own conclusion.

It can be a frustrating experience to read short stories like these.

On the other hand Doerr makes up for it with the vividness of the stories, and the power of his writing.

The stories cover a broad range of topics and are set in a broad range of contexts. Several are set in the Northern Plains where Doerr lives and works. Others are set farther afield: Africa, Europe, Maine.

A common thread, though, is Doerr's physicality and his love of the outdoors, and nearly all these stories involve people and their interactions with the physical world, often as metaphor for their more abstract interactions with each other. The title story involves a blind man whose lifelong study of molluscs by touch and smell is a metaphor for his attempts to understand his adult son. July Fourth involves two groups who settle a pub dispute by going fishing. In The Caretaker, a collection of beached whales on the Oregon coast are a metaphor for the horrors of warfare that are plaguing an African immigrant refugee. In A Tangle by the Rapid River, the fisherman's efforts to detangle his fly fishing line from the riverside shrubbery are a metaphor for the near-terminal state of his failed relationship with his spouse. Mkondo draws its core strength from trail running as a metaphor for courtship and commitment.

Here's Joseph, the protagonist of The Caretaker, visited in his garden by the deaf girl Belle, talking about how he felt compelled to bury the stranded whales, only to realize he is actually talking about the pain of losing his mother during the war:

After a moment he adds, "I buried the hearts from the whales in the forest." He makes the sign for heart over his chest.

She looks at him, canting her head. Her face softens. What? she signs.

"I buried them here." He wants to say more, wants to tell her the whales' story. But does he even know it?


Her pale fingers browse among the stems, a raindrop slips down the curve of a green tomato, he has a sudden need to tell her everything. All his petty crimes, the way his mother left for the market in the morning while he slept -- a hundred confessions surge through him. He has been waiting too long; the words have been building behind a dyke and now the dyke is breached and the river is slipping its banks. He wants to tell her what he has learned about the miracles of light, the way a day's light fluxes in tides: pale and gleaming at dawn, the glare of noon, the gold of evening, the promise of twilight -- every second of every day has its own magic. He wants to tell her that when things vanish they become something else, in death we rise again in the blades of grass, the splitting bodies of seeds. But his past is flooding out: the dictionary, the ledger, his mother, the horrors he has seen.

"I had a mother," he says. "She disappeared." He cannot tell if Belle is reading his lips; she is looking away, lifting a tomato and scraping some mud from its underside, letting it back down. Joseph squats in front of her. The storm sirs the trees.

"She had a garden. Like this but nicer. More ... orderly."

It's hard to realize that Doerr was only in his early twenties when he wrote these stories; they each come to life like the work of a great writer in his prime. Remarkable.

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