- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 15, 2004

IDEAS OF HEAVEN: A RING OF STORIES

By Joan Silber

W.W. Norton, $23.95, 250 pages

REVIEWED BY DEBRA BRUNO

What makes a reader reach again and again for a collection of short stories, anxious to turn back to them, unable to leave them alone?

Imagine that the stories are woven together, although the thread is barely visible. In most short-fiction collections, a story may pull us in, but at its end we are forced to break the reverie and start anew at the beginning of the next story. In full-length novels, on the other hand, we usually find some variation of a straight narrative, and we must follow that larger story for however many hundreds of pages.

Joan Silber’s new collection of stories, “Ideas of Heaven,” does something quite different. At first, the stories seem to be linked in only the most casual of ways. A shadowy, unpleasant character in the first story gets our full attention in the second. A 16th-century Venetian poet whose lyrics are read in the second story gets her voice in the third. And so on.

This linking device would soon seem like a parlor game in the hands of a lesser writer, but Miss Silber joins her stories in other ways as well. Each tells a tale of unrequited love and loss, of passion thwarted and of poignant longing for exactly the person one cannot have.

Anyone who has undergone heartbreak will see herself or himself in the dancer calling her estranged French husband collect from America; in a homosexual man’s vow of celibacy to prove himself worthy of a younger man; in a Renaissance poet’s patient suffering; in a remarried man’s longing for his first wife.

These stories also weave together aspects of passion — love, sexual desire, and religious fervor — in a way that reminds us how true passion has elements of all three. The author writes, in a short description of the genesis of her book, “I was thinking of the ways in which sex and religion tend to pick up for each other’s failings, to take up one another’s slack. All the stories in this volume are about forms of devotion and forms of consolation.”

Miss Silber, who won a PEN/Hemingway Award for her previous volume “Household Words,” is a lyrical writer. Like William Trevor’s writing and Alice Munro’s, her prose embraces both particularity and grandeur. A missionary’s wife in the story “Ideas of Heaven” muses, “I had long felt that the earth was linked by a great net of glorious strands.” That sense of this great web of interconnectedness never diminishes.

Take, for instance, a description of nightfall on a cruise ship: “There is an hour on any ship when twilight turns everything a bright and glowing blue and the horizon disappears, the sea and the sky are the same. The line between air and water is so apparently incidental that a largeness of vision comes over everyone; the ship floats on the sky, until night falls and everything is swallowed in the dark.” It’s a transcendent moment.

The most stunning story is the title story, “Ideas of Heaven.” Although it’s actually the one story in the collection that (just briefly) mentions sex, a different sort of longing grows in the heart of Lizzie, the missionary’s wife in turn-of-the-20th-century Fenzhou, China. The story is written as if taken from her journals, with a careful recording of meals to prepare and babies to fuss over, and a relentless optimism fed by her strong faith.

Lizzie must endure, first, the loss of her only daughter Lucy from typhus. I have never seen death so well described, especially the pulling away that one sees in the face of the dying. Here is Lucy at the end: “She was not very interested in us at present; she seemed busy elsewhere. When I watched her closed face, I had the sense to be in awe. She was so clearly working at something.

“When Ben [the girl’s father] came into the room (looking old, with his streaked mustache), he asked me if she was sleeping, and I said that she was occupied. ‘Is she?’ he said. We watched her as we might have watched a figure on the road in the distance. The next days were not so hard for us as I would have thought.”

Lizzie captures the sacrifices and the difficult life of missionaries in a country on the eve of the 1900 Boxer Rebellion: “We had to cultivate a different ardor, a suspended thirst, like a lover who waits years for his beloved to come to him.”

Later, the missionaries come face to face with the rebellion, in which a powerful peasant movement saw foreigners, especially Christian missionaries, as devils. Hundreds were slaughtered in just a few months. The ending of the story is breathtaking.

“Gaspara Stampa (1523-54)” is the book’s other historical story. Miss Silber’s protagonist was a real person: Some call Stampa the greatest female poet of the Italian Renaissance. The poems she produced in the devastation of her affair with Count Collaltino de Collato are affecting: “I hate him who loves me, love him who scorns me” she writes in Rime 43. In Miss Silber’s story, Stampa comes to life. “My sister said I had made a costume out of my heartbreak.”

The rest of the stories take place in modern times, with the sorts of heartbreaks one expects in today’s world. But these stories, too, give us a refreshing change: They don’t hesitate to leap over a lifetime, to skip past 10 years. It’s not that the time that passes is insignificant, but the reader can accept the narrative leap, in the same cinematic way moviegoers might accept a cut and a jump forward.

The final story, “The Same Ground,” takes every thread of the collected stories, from bereavement to Buddhism, and weaves them together into a love story of simplicity and joy.

These stories are wise. Miss Silber shows us how a cruel man can suffer almost like a dumb animal, or how a teenager who doesn’t intend to be nicer to his parents does so, despite himself. She understands the comfort of a long-term relationship where the spark might be subdued but where there are more prosaic pleasures. Finally, her characters remind us that we will have other lives in this world, and that nothing ever stays the same.

Debra Bruno is assistant editor of Moment magazine.

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