Ecstatic Cahoots by Stuart Dybeck (Farrar, Straus, Giroux., 2014)
Stuart Dybek, an author who has been called a living master of the short story form, has released a new book. Ecstatic Cahoots is a collection of 52 flash fiction pieces. And before you despair at his manic productivity and your own relative lack of ambition, it’s important to note that the stories have been appearing in nearly every literary magazine imaginable, including The Indiana Review, Tin House, Epoch, and The Seattle Review, over the last decade. In the stories, characters struggle with loneliness, loss, and the strange truth that any moment can be filled with immensity or emptiness. Dybek’s stories are structurally linked and bleed into one another—characters reappear in multiple stories, bearing new names, or a story is continued fifty pages and seven stories later. The stories carry echoes of one another like the sounds of the Big Bang that can still be heard on the other side of the universe.
Do you remember looking at puzzle pieces on the floor as a child? How distant that collection of shapes, end pieces, and splashes of color seemed from the complete picture displayed on the box. The interlocking connections of Ecstatic Cahoots seem to hint at the complete puzzle. And as we generally enjoy completing things, it’s hard not to want to construct meaning that encompasses all of them. And yet, the apparent connections between stories often lead to dead ends, or come to a halt after a story or two. The real connection is not found between 52 different stories, but in the persistent beauty of Dybek’s prose.
At their best, the stories fold into one another, their connections reminiscent of dreams. What Dybek seems to be going for with recurrent characters, moments, or themes, is the sort of accretion that novelists achieve by volume and repetition. The tiny bride and groom from one story reappear in the next, which has a first person narrator, called “the groom” who describes a refrigerator whose proportions are mountainous. This déjà vu like feeling occurs throughout Ecstatic Cahoots, hinting at deeper meaning. And yet, in the end, the connections themselves are rarely essential. The themes of deep and abiding loneliness and the neediness of being human carry more weight in the end.
Ecstatic Cahoots does nothing to diminish Dybek’s status as an essential short story writer. The stories are unrelentingly beautiful. On almost any given page Dybek is capable of turning a moment into something memorable. In Current, he describes the river: “Naiads of mayflies and water skaters dimple its placid surface, while circles expand from where darting minnows have kissed its shadowy underside.” The story ends on the following line, “And the current that he still clutches now flows through his fist, unraveling between his fingers like a braid coming loose down the spine of a Virgin.” These are the sorts of sentences that propel the reader through the 52-story collection, sentences that fall over you like a fine rain.
Dybek is a poet and prose writer. He’s on the record as saying that flash fiction is where the two naturally intersect. So it’s not surprising that many of the stories in Ecstatic Cahoots resemble poetry. As in many poems, the story is not driven by plot or character, but by language. Dybek makes this point most saliently in the final entry, Pink Ocean, about a writing teacher and one of his poetry students. The teacher describes his students’ work: “but the barns in her poems could only have been constructed out of language. Barns the horizons showed through, composed more of slatted light, motes and cobwebs than from warped siding, their tattered roofs eschew beneath the frown of crows.” Dybek too has given us a world that is constructed out of language, and what beauty he gives to the seemingly mundane.
The best stories in Ecstatic Cahoots wed Dybek’s hypnotic descriptions with robust narratives. Think Chekhov, only much, much shorter. In these stories, like, I Never Told This to Anyone, Dybek’s language propels the reader through a wonderland of the imagination. A boy is spending the summer at his survivalist uncle’s home when he suddenly starts receiving visits from a tiny bride and groom who romance one another on his window sill. The bride and groom eventually display all the typical traits of a failing marriage, less sex, more complaints about one another, they quarrel over resources and eventually admit to not really being in love anymore. In stories like this one Dybek’s lyricism mixes with authentic narrative tension in extraordinary ways.
The best part of the collection occurs in a triptych of stories near the beginning. Read as a set, the pieces combine the best elements of lyricism, narrative, and the interconnectedness that hangs over the whole collection like fog on a river. The first, Current, describes a faun lying by the water and drifting into a online casino dream that carries him down the river. The lyricism evokes the painting of Ophelia. The next story is thematically linked, picking up with a man taking a raft down some endless open sea. In this story, A Confluence of Doors, the narrator encounters an island made of all kinds of doors, pine, oak, and mahogany, with large golden knockers. He walks across the island of doors inspecting each one until he hears a faint knock at one of them. Suddenly, each door is knocking louder and louder, until it becomes clear that they are going to splinter. The man runs back across that pile of knocking doors and is almost thrown to his death by the splintering of the doors. Two stories later, in Ants, the narrator recounts the stories that his uncle would read and act out for him when he was a child. He describes one particular story that would lead to his uncle chasing him around the house until he fled into his room and hid under his covers, while his uncle pounded away at his door. At moments like this, Ecstatic Cahoots, is a delight.
The latter half of Ecstatic Cahoots is not as strong. In the latter half, the stories and insights, or moments of realization begin to seem less related by dream and imagination than by the familiar grittiness of realism: failed relationships, loneliness, alcohol and rain seem to populate nearly every one. Though the stories are still swathed in beautiful prose, the moments feel less weighty and their recurrences feel less meaningful. And perhaps this is one of the drawbacks of writing a collection that includes 52 stories. Everything is on display all the time.
Dybek’s female characters can be a bit one dimensional. They are often sexual, aggressive and damaged. They are women refracted through the male lens, which makes them into pale reflections of the real thing. They lack the fullness and texture of the female characters in the works of Kate Chopin or Lydia Davis. This incomplete rendering of women is not entire, nor are its payoffs zero. In a two-part story of a couple parting ways in Italy, the longing or need for someone else’s body is the thin reed that initially keeps the couple together. If one of Dybek’s chief themes is loneliness, then the body’s need for comfort and sex is shown as one brief escape from that loneliness.
Despite these minor shortcomings, Ecstatic Cahoots is a virtuoso display of Dybek’s skill. And Dybek’s prose, triumphant and lyrical, provides a bulwark for the reader against the sadness of the world, depositing them on some pleasant farther shore. In Pink Ocean, Dybek describes “a train plowing through fields as if pulling its own wreckage.” In the end, as the words wash over you, it’s hard not to feel like Ecstatic Cahoots is a success.