The current state of human wishes are fair game in Antarctica and Babe in Paradise, two new short story collections by Claire Keegan and Marisa Silver, respectively. While Keegan largely devotes herself to the lives and hopes of the (mostly Irish) poor and middle class (with occasional forays into America), Silver's milieu is Tinsel Town, La La Land, Hollywood _ the late 20th century seat of American dreams.
In Antarctica, Keegan's stunning title story, a happily married woman travels from the suburban safety of her cozy life for a weekend alone in the city of London. She picks up a stranger in a bar, determined to find out what it would be like to sleep with another man, and somehow certain she will find such an adventure disappointing. But the unnamed protagonist finds more than she bargained for. Hell, she discovers, can be found somewhere along the perimeter of fantasy and need. In fact, many of Keegan's characters discover there is no turning back once the edge has been exceeded.
In Quare Name for a Boy, an aspiring, pregnant writer (also unnamed) meets up with the estranged lover who is the father of the child she intends to keep. "I used to think I could never know too much," she muses over a beer with him in a pub. "But now I know too much." In Men and Women, a little girl who still believes in Santa Claus discovers the truth about men and women. In Sisters, the ugly duckling who stayed home to tend the farm, who feels she has wasted her life, exacts revenge upon her Swan-like sister who seemed to have gotten everything. In Passport Soup, a child has gone missing and her absence nearly destroys her parents ability to love one another.
Keegan has a gift for capturing the fragility of love, the danger of human wishes, and yet even the darkest endings conjure the hope, the indestructibility of the human spirit. There is something transcendent in Antarctica, something beyond its Irish and American settings that _ in language that is at once spare and rich _ opens a door upon the true nature of what it is to be alive and fighting for something more in the 21st century.
Marisa Silver's Babe in Paradise exposes an equally bleak modern world filled with equally lost characters searching for something better. Here are stories that are firmly rooted in Los Angeles, the real Los Angeles where drug addiction, poverty, fires, single mothers, and careers in pornography are far more likely than stardom, fame and fortune. Silver's characters are often desperate, often alone, always searching for something better; and yet they are also survivors, wanderers who have come, very often, from somewhere else in search of a new life, a chance to forget the past and start over.
In The Missing, one of Silver's most poignant stories, Mariana juggles the fragments of her life. She tends her precocious 5-year-old, whose father lost interest in the enterprise after Willow was born. She works with her pseudo-surfer lover, who she knows well enough to meet for sex but not enough to have over for dinner. She tries to trust her drug-addicted brother, a professional hanger-on at Hollywood parties who has no hope of attaining anything more than the periphery of existence. And she tries to understand her aging, Holocaust-survivor mother, who has suddenly decided to become a public speaker on the subject of her survival, the very topic she has never been willing to discuss with Mariana. Here every character is a survivor, though perhaps none more so than Mariana, who desperately tries to hold on to what's precious, but finds only bits of broken glass.
In Statues, a young couple who came to Hollywood to make it big in the movies (he as a writer, she as an actress), is running out of room to dream, existing in a universe where hope and possibility seem to be continually contracting. Everything about their lives seemed so temporary and fake, as though they were living on a movie set that was going to be dismantled the minute the tidy domestic scene was over. Many of the characters in these stories live in this same surreal world, where the things they count on the most, the dreams they hold most dear, the fragments of their lives can be wiped out in a matter of seconds. A house burns down in the title story, Babe in Paradise, though it was nothing more than a receptacle for existence; people and babies fall, sometimes to their deaths, in Falling Bodies; children grow up and move on, in Thief. The lives that Silvers characters create have all the stability of houses built along the San Andreas fault.
Mindi Dickstein is a New Jersey writer currently writing lyrics for the Broadway-bound musical, Little Women.
By Claire Keegan
Atlantic Monthly Press, 207 pp
BABE IN PARADISE
By Marisa Silver
Norton, 224 pp