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The Past | The Previous

Thomas Lynch's first collection of fiction, Apparition and Late Fictions, is a slim volume of fiction.

The collection is largely successful, though you could (and in here, I would) argue that each piece is a meditation on death or loss, similar to what you would find in Lynch's most famous book, The Undertaking, which is a more successful book in terms of ambition realised. Here, in the five stories presented, there is a calmness, a reverie, a stillness that is mostly successful, though I did feel as if 'Apparition', the title novella of the collection, felt as if it was two stories joined together to make the length.

The opening story of the collection, 'Catch and Release', however, sets the reader up for what to expect in the collection. Telling the story of a son taking his father's ashes out for one final fishing trip, Lynch guides his reader confidently in the story with a finely detailed sense of words:

And pushing off from the Walhalla landing, in the first light of the first morning of the first October since his father died, with his lame dog Chinook curled in the boat's bow, his father's ashes in a thermos on the front seat, himself easing the oars into the downstream current--the three of them adrift in the Pere Marquette, the forest on either side of which was ablaze with the changes of Michigan's autumn--he thought it was nearly like taking his father fishing again and that the thermos bottle was a perfect camouflage and that he didn't know if such things ought to feel like weeping or like laughter. He loved the damp rotting smell of autumn, the breeze that bore it through the tunnel of the river, the pockets of fog, the marsh and mudbanks, the litter of fallen and falling trees, the unseen traffic in the woods, the distance his drift put between himself and all the other details and duties of ordinary time. He loved the snug hold of the river on his boat, the determination of its current, the certain direction, the quiet.


The structure of the story is simple. While moving from spot to spot in his boat, the son remembers his father and his reactions to his life, most of them largely supportive. The question of what to do with his grief, of how to deal with his loss, is the centre of the story, and Lynch quietly, and assuredly, guides the story much as he would an essay out of one of his other books. In fact, if anyone reads the small collection (and you should, for no matter else is said, it is beautifully written), they should be prepared not for stories where the narrative is the main focus--mostly, things to do not happen, and all conflict and resolution is internal and handled by imagery--but stories that spend their time, much as an essay or poem would, meditating on a loss, or a gain.

For the most part, Lynch's five stories are exercises in juxtaposition: the living remember the lost and the past is measured against the present and, for all but 'Apparition', the stories deal with the dead. In 'Bloodsport', an undertaker remembers the first time he met a young woman, and how he felt when he went to pick her body up after she was murdered. 'Hunter's Moon' follows an elderly man on his evening walk, and the memories of his three wives and one daughter. In 'Matinee de Septembre' a professor is awoke to desire years after the death of her husband. In each of these, a good portion of the story is given over to back flash, where the dead feature strongly, and the influence on the living is always felt. Lynch uses the device well and when he breaks from that in 'Apparition', he does not break away from it fully: the divorced husband turned successful divorce author spends much of his story narrating how his marriage ended.

In truth, I worried that this was going to be a problem for me, and at the half way mark of the book I had some concern that the similar structure of the stories and the way that Lynch was given to talking about the dead was going to make for a repetitive collection. However, the final two stories, 'Matinee de Septembre' and 'Apparition', which take up over half the book, nicely change the pace despite their similarities, so I reckon Lynch avoids it, though your mileage may vary.

The true joy of this fiction is, like Lynch's essays, a sense of compassion and understand of the human condition quite unlike any other author I've encountered. The stories he has written, in an author without that sense, without the ability to connection to the range of human conditions that he does, would not nearly have been as successful as they were--and in the end, it is Lynch's ability to rise above the simplicity of his fiction in form and concept, to deliver work that connects each time that makes Apparition and Late Fictions worth the time and the cost.

As I was chilling round with this review--pulling my thoughts together, deciding what I'd write--I came across this PBS documentary about Lynch and the family business as a funeral director. It's not too bad, and there's a particularly heartbreaking thread involving a young family and their sick child, which when placed against the death's of the elderly men and women in it, allow you to see what's a life lived, and what is not.

(crossposted)