Lily King Tries Her Hand at Something New: Short Stories

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By Megan O’Grady

By Lily King

In Lily King’s short story “Creature,” 14-year-old Carol has fled the ruins of her parents’ marriage to spend her summer babysitting for the children of a wealthy family in her New England town. She’s just read “Jane Eyre,” and, like Brontë’s heroine, she’s ensconced in a big house with turrets and falls for its broodingly handsome male occupant.

“You cannot know these blistering feelings,” Carol writes in a tumescent letter to a friend, “— you have not met your Rochester. But believe me, they are so powerful that now every novel, every line of poetry, makes perfect and vivid sense.” She longs to “ravish” him, though she isn’t entirely clear what that means; surely it “couldn’t be anything so boring as sex.”

The pursuit of desire — the hubris and folly of it, its links to our intellect and the tricky synchronicity of brain and heart — is King’s best subject. She’s the author of five acclaimed novels, but it’s her last two — “Writers & Lovers,” in which an aspiring novelist grieves her mother’s unexpected death while finishing her book and navigating a love triangle, and “Euphoria,” which was loosely inspired by experiences in the life of the anthropologist Margaret Mead — that have assured her place in contemporary literature. This is, in part, because King reminds us of the revelations still to be found in plot and character, those elements of fiction that might be called old-fashioned if it weren’t for the fact that she, with her range and emotional precision, never makes them feel so. There is, it turns out, still much more to know about what living is all about, and the things that crack us open, geode-like, to reveal some hidden marvel within.

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    In King’s novels, ideas are often the best conveyance for passion: In “Euphoria,” set in 1930s Papua New Guinea, the titular emotion refers to a breakthrough in comprehension, that sense of thrilling clarity in which understanding another culture seems within grasp. (One of the more erotic moments in the book is a scene in which three anthropologists create “the Grid,” excitedly mapping human civilization along an axis.) But as Nell Stone, the Mead stand-in, acknowledges, the feeling might also be rooted in a kind of delusion. We are profoundly limited by our subjectivity, she explains to the British anthropologist with whom she has fallen in love, and yet our perspective “can have an enormous wingspan.” So too the impossibility of fully comprehending our marriages, attractions and intimacies. We cannot stand outside ourselves to objectively see ourselves in relation to the people we love, but that doesn’t mean that we stop trying.

    As in her novels, many of the stories in King’s first collection of short fiction, “Five Tuesdays in Winter,” are preceded by loss and ignited by desire — the pursuit of which often hinges upon its articulation, the ability to find the “words for all that roiled inside you,” as the protagonist of the title story, a reticent used-book seller, puts it. He’s surrounded by evidence of the power of language in the form of the tattered classics that fill his shop, but after the departure of his wife, he struggles to express his affection for his daughter, not to mention his growing passion for his shop assistant. King supplies the words for him with the kind of interior monologue we can relate to: After a date with the wrong woman, he feels “abstracted and disjointed, and it occurred to him that the sensation was only a slight magnification of the feeling he felt all the time.”

    Parents in King’s early fiction were often both larger than life and unavailable — alcoholic, narcissistic or otherwise absent. It’s a theme in these stories, too, though the standouts tend to paint generational impasses with a finer, softer brush. The moment of connection between the bookseller and his daughter, when it comes, is fittingly awkward and tender, and one that neither will forget.

    In “The North Sea,” a German woman, abruptly widowed and left in financial straits, takes her teenage daughter on a seaside holiday, hoping to break through the grief that has silenced them. “Adults hid their pain, their fears, their failure,” the widow reflects, after treating her daughter to a horseback riding lesson she can’t afford, “but adolescents hid their happiness, as if to reveal it would risk its loss.” The ending, in which the daughter babysits for an irritatingly happy Australian family staying at the same inn, is as twisted as it is gratifying.

    It says a lot about King’s dexterity with tone that a father’s breakdown and suicide attempt is the background to the collection’s most amusing story, “When in the Dordogne,” in which an adolescent is left in the care of a pair of boisterous college boys who teach him, in essence, how to enjoy life — and how to talk to the girl on whom he has a crush.

    King’s acuity with all that roils inside us often puts me in the mind of Tessa Hadley or Joan Silber, authors who shun ironic distance for forthright proximity, whose feminism is implicit, who could inscribe the contents of the human heart on the head of a pin. In the final story, “The Man at the Door,” a writer’s doubts in her own talents following the birth of her son come knocking in the form of a man who demands a gin martini and proceeds to shred her confidence. “I have never understood why a person who is not a genius bothers with art,” he tells her.

    It’s the kind of ripped-from-life-sounding line that recalls the beginning of “Writers & Lovers,” in which the narrator’s yuppie landlord patronizingly asks the narrator how her novel is coming along. “You know,” he says, “I just find it extraordinary that you think you have something to say.” Back at her desk, she thinks: “I don’t write because I think I have something to say. I write because if I don’t, everything feels even worse.” For certain kinds of writers (I am one), there’s companionship to be found in those words.

    King has written that she based that scene on a similar experience she had while she was working on her first novel, and it’s clear from these stories that she’s never lost sight of how difficult it is to take oneself seriously when no one else really does. It’s one of the reasons I think of her as “a writer’s writer” — in the best sense, in the sense that we never doubt her belief in storytelling as our best chance at truth and its solaces. She isn’t afraid of acknowledging the way in which a lack of money might forestall our dreams. She knows that what we call coming-of-age doesn’t happen in a single electric moment at age 14, but that part of being human is to keep discovering, in our seasons of euphoria and sorrow, new corners of being. In our time of anxiety and isolation, King writes stories to curl up in, by which I mean they afford us something rarely celebrated in literature: comfort.

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