A brilliant writer is able to capture the essence of a life in a few carefully selected words. Some writers work a lifetime to just once achieve that moment of clarity. For others, their short stories and novels are filled with passages that deftly accomplish the task. Ellen Gilchrist is one of those writers whose words have the ability to make a reader gasp and nod her head in understanding of a passage that recollects bygone days, or that feeling of awakening love, or the utter despair over the cruelties of nature.
For eight years, fans of Gilchrist have waited for a new collection. The anticipation is over and Acts of God is Gilchrist at her best.
There are ten stories in Acts of God, and one might like to imagine Gilchrist spending many, many months or even years perfecting each one. Maybe it helps the aspiring writer to think of Gilchrist toiling over these near perfect stories, and believing if she can do it, there hope is there for others. Gilchrist is so adept in her storytelling that she reaches deep into the human psyche and exposes the fears that haunt all thinking beings, and provides the reader a glimpse into how one of us handles life’s challenges.
For instance, each person at some point must confront her own mortality. How will one handle the knowledge that death is near? In “The Dissolution of the Myelin Sheath,” Gilchrist’s protagonist, Philipa, is facing a certain and difficult death. She has multiple sclerosis and her symptoms are worsening. Philipa is a southern woman who is full of grace and elegance, and she’s lived a full and blessed life. She decides she will not slowly erode, and so she books a cruise to Egypt and tells her husband to meet her there after he has completed his business in Biloxi. She has no intentions of meeting “her cousin Courtney in Cairo,” a phrase with such lovely alliteration and cadence. Philipa leaves long letters to her children and their offspring, notes to her three best friends and a short note to her husband. “At three the next morning she dressed in slacks and heavy, laced-up boots and went up on the deck and walked back to the yoga place. She had already swallowed an Ambien and an oxycodone. When she got to the railing she drank half of a bottle of champagne. She was feeling woozy but she managed to climb over the railing and walk along the curved surface still holding the champagne and the pills… She swallowed some more of the pills and stood holding the railing until she thought they had begun to take effect. I was an athlete, she told herself. I can do this. I can still hold on and I can let go.”
She let go. “…the water threw her into the motors and her brain stopped before she could gasp for air.”
Gilchrist leaves the reader haunted by the choices available even when we believe we have none at all.
Another story in the collection is called “A Love Story,” and in just seven pages, Gilchrist encapsulates a love story so deep that it can make a reader weep. The intensity of the depth of characters is astonishing. There are no wasted words and each sentence seems to carry the weight of years of knowledge about Gilchrist’s characters.
Gilchrist writes, “The restaurant he wanted to go to was only a few blocks away and he was right, they would have anything we wanted waiting for us. He is a powerful man who commands other men without moving or saying many words. And a good man and not a man who takes women and uses them. He is a gentleman and now we have been together in the strangest thing a man and woman can do. This love, this tenderness, this blessing.”
Much of this relationship is left off the page for the reader to puzzle out herself. Gilchrist perfects what Willa Cather described when she wrote, “It is the inexplicable presence of the thing not named, of the overtone divined by the ear but not heard by it, the verbal mood, the emotional aura of the fact or the thing or the deed, that gives high quality to the novel or the drama, as well as to poetry itself.”
Gilchrist orchestrates long sentences that leave even the silent reader’s lungs wishing for more air. In “A Love Story” she describes a beautiful and sweet lovemaking scene in a sentence of more than one hundred and seventy words, and it does not feel like a gimmick or a stretch to ask the reader to engage, along with the couple, in this extended experience. A writer of lesser skill who attempted such an artful technique would prompt this reader to pull out an old blue copy-editing pen and cause her to begin a reconstruction on the page. With Gilchrist, this reader goes along even if she is left panting at the end.
The collection’s structure wisely offers readers a break from the tragedy and turmoil. The first five stories cover the sudden death of an elderly couple, a deadly tornado, Hurricane Katrina (twice) and the London terrorist attack. Gilchrist offers the reader an oasis with “The Dogs.” Here the reader can relax and regain her breath, but also collapse into a charming and delightful story that is told as a collection of letters between neighbors regarding the new neighbors’ dogs that bark too much, especially for the likes of writer Rhoda Manning. Lawyers get involved, threats are made, and a previously silent neighbor chimes in and berates anyone who owns an animal and those who “treat them like prisoners.” The letter is from the Harvard educated neighbor Harvey Colton, M.D., author of We Come from Risen Apes, Not Fallen Angels.
The story has amusing twists and prompts the realization that in an isolated, technology-laden society that urges strangers to be “friends” or to get “LinkedIn”, a common irritant such as barking dogs can’t be resolved by neighbors just talking to one another.
In their low-tech method of letter writing, Rhoda and her lawyer entertainingly dissect HBO’s “Sopranos.” “I wrote the produces an told them either Dr. Melfi and Tony fuck each other or I’m canceling HBO. It won’t be on again for ten months so what are we going to do now?” Rhoda writes.
For this reader, “The Dogs” is a favorite for its wit, wisdom and examination of twenty-first century life.
In Acts of God, Gilchrist captures a brilliant sliver of the spectrum of human archetypes. Gilchrist is a writer who easily transcends the barriers of age and sex and brings to life our neighbors, our friends, our parents and our lovers. She is a master at exploring the universal experiences of millions through the expert telling of specific lives. Acts of God leaves this reader hoping that Gilchrist does not wait another eight years to release a new collection.
Acts of God
By Ellen Gilchrist
256 pages. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, $23.95