By Scott Gloden
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, June 2014
Every few pages of Stuart Dybek’s Paper Lantern Love Stories, I found myself turning away and pinning my eyes to the back of my head. Each time this happened, it stemmed from a line of dialogue. In “Oceanic,” it was a woman saying, after very intense kissing, “That was Oceanic.” In “Waiting,” it was a two-page expository diatribe, which fed lines as thickly as, “Buck said it probably was a study for a painting, maybe seventeenth century, that its realism suggested the Dutch Caravaggisti—the painters influenced by Caravaggio, who in turn influenced Rembrandt, and he said more likely it was someone like Hendrick ter Brugghen.” In “Paper Lantern”: “Baby, take it out.”
And yet, the stories within this collection are some of the smartest I’ve ever read.
Never mind the spans of dialogue, which often feel either too articulated or too unlikely to exist, never mind that sometimes it’s flat out goofy, never mind the way women are written (which we’ll get to), but what makes Dybek such an impressive writer is the flow of everything he writes. Not to borrow from all the swimming references there are to be found in Paper Lantern Love Stories, but he casts you in his tow.
Upfront, all of Dybek’s stories depend on the effusiveness of memory. Each scene has a present-day root, but the main characters are always channeling through their mind to previous days, previous moments, and are trying to get at how they ladder. These are the plots: a quest to make sense of how what was pertains to what is.
By example, in “If I Vanished,” we have Ned renting the Kevin Costner-directed movie Open Range, in hopes of better understanding a conversation he had toward the end of his relationship with Cecil. We are with Ned as he recounts the conversation surrounding the movie, as he reads review after review of the movie on his laptop—from both esteemed critics and forum-lovers—we watch as Ned goes to Blockbuster and subsequently critiques the parts of his relationship that watching the movie inspires. Inside this story, though, you laugh, you feel a sense of loss, and even a reminder of what it’s like to have nothing better to do than watch a midnight movie by yourself, piecing things together. And afterward, you don’t even have to go and watch Open Range, because it feels like you have!
Dybek hits every note of story for a reader, even if the recipe feels the same: Midwestern men of a limbo age, most academic or at least scholarly, working through the women they’ve lost (sometimes the very same characters are even smartly reused in other stories to a nice effect). It’s simple, sure, but it works for him. In fact, you get a huge sense of Dybek himself, thanks to these frank internalizations. It’s almost as if we are watching Dybek confront situations he’s either gone through himself, or knows to happen in the course of relationships, and he walks us through. There’s no justification for wrong behavior, there’s no construction of empathy. Instead, he’s honest about what he’s writing, and this is a great way to keep someone interested in fiction. To offer something that feels true to a story that isn’t.
Dybek isn’t a science fiction writer (barring the time machines in “Paper Lantern”), and so he is making situations that he needs us to think can happen. Many times these situations seem so overly contrived that we want to reject them, but Dybek is one of those rare writers who believes in themself. His liveliness on the page is what keeps every story going, and which keeps your eyes rolling back into focus.
An exception that deserves some speaking to, of course, is the role of women written from a male perspective. Words that often get thrown out in such discussion are used, perhaps not incorrectly, depending on the tone one is wanting, but at least unfairly. Chauvinism is aggressiveness for a cause, but gets popularized as a word of male power; sexism is a two-way street; misogyny is an all out hatred of women. None of these words match Dybek’s writing, but they would probably orbit the same interest groups. In seven of the eight stories, there are sexually charged women—not in a manner of liberation, but in the manner that magazines airbrush female celebrities. All of them are smart, all of them are beautiful, all of them are quintessentially witty, and, for some reason, intensely, physically attracted to the main men (oftentimes cheating on their husbands and boyfriends with the main characters). By design, Dybek places women in situations of easy and intense climaxes, sometimes just from kissing, and it suggests to the reader that this is what love stories need: sex. Dybek’s sex all involves sudden and intense, B-movie acts of passion, where the women seem like they’ve just been waiting around turned on.
It’s hard to narrow in on how to define this phenomenon. It doesn’t feel wrong per se, but it just simply doesn’t seem right when you read one story after another of the same encounters based in the same stereotypes. To be perfectly honest, it’s sort of how straight high school boys might imagine intimacy—beautiful women always wanting to have sex with them.
Thankfully, with “Seiche” aside, these encounters generally happen mid-story and then are gone. Or, in the case of “Waiting,” Dybek relates relationships to a character’s love of Hemingway, and the interactions between man and woman mirror Hemingway’s own liberties in short fiction, creating a truly brilliant impact on Dybek’s story. Though—most of the time—the act is a mild distraction. It’s only reading many mild distractions together that one can become undone.
That all said, Paper Lantern Love Stories will ultimately show itself to readers the way mysteries occur on the big screen, where Dybek proves that no details within our memories are needless: they’re all clues to the bigger picture.