The Bigness of the World by Lori Ostlund

The Bigness of the World by Lori Ostlund
The Bigness of the World
by Lori Ostlund
University of Georgia Press, 180 pp.
CLR [rating:3.5]

An Ear to the World

Reviewers can be very protective of first-time authors. We watch as they emerge like fragile hatchlings into the literary world – hollow-boned and downy soft – and pray that an indiscriminate critic doesn’t stroll by and bite off their head.

Not that Lori Ostlund will need much protection. The Bigness of the World, Ostlund’s first collection of short stories, was good enough for the judges of the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. She won the prize in 2008.

Deservedly so, for Ostlund has an ear, an appendage often ignored by writers in favor of the flashier eye. Alive to the subtext of the everyday, she uses flat conversations as a front for complicated back-stories:

I try to recall what broasted chicken is, how it differs from roasted chicken, what the addition of the b actually means, but the word has been dropped into the conversation with such ease that I know I cannot ask him to explain. “Broasted chicken,” he would reply automatically, the words so familiar to him that they are their own definition. Then, after the slightest pause, he would say it again, “Broasted chicken,” asserting the words in a way that means both “You never visit” and “What kind of world do you live in?”

Ostlund’s economy with her brush is a far cry from the thick impasto style of a writer like Joyce Carol Oates, and may have something to do with her Midwestern roots. The merits of broasted chicken, for example, comes from “Talking Fowl with My Father,” one of what I’ll call Ostlund’s domestic stories.

Similarly, in “The Bigness of the World,” the story has a Scandinavian flavor, its characters quirkily articulate. Ilsa Marie Lumpkin, a babysitter who insists on wearing her hat indoors and abhors contractions, is an example:

“Well,” she said after a moment. “However can you expect to understand the bigness of the world if you do not see the ocean?”…

“But why must we understand the bigness of the world?” I asked.

We were in front of the house by then, and Ilsa stopped and looked at us.

“My dear Martin and Victoria,” she said in the high, quivery voice that we had been longing for. “I know it may sound frightening, yet I assure you that there have been times in my life when the bigness of the world was my only consolation.”

That’s a nice touch: a philosophy of life swaddled in a tea cozy.

After graduating from college, Ostlund became a teacher and began traveling around the bigness of the world, experiences which shaped the other set of stories in her collection. These usually follow a biographical pattern: a gay couple teaching overseas, a narrator alive to the surrealism of “abroad”:

…a man of indeterminate age wearing only a pair of shorts lay upon a plastic chaise lounge in the hallway just outside our door, groaning day and night, no doubt from the pain caused by the gaping wound that ran from one of his nipples to his navel.

Here in “abroad” the clear sky Minnesota distinctions between poverty and wealth, suffering and care, between a man sleeping in a bed inside a display case and a man stretched out on a chaise lounge, are muddied with the humidity.

Which is not to say that the American couple in “Bed Death” do anything to help. They simply find it rude to ask him to keep it down and debate over whether to greet him when unlocking their door:

Julia felt that we should, that a hello was in order; otherwise it was like treating him as though he were invisible, dead in fact, but as I prefer to pass my own illnesses without interference, I maintained that we should not ask him to engage in unnecessary politenesses when he so obviously needed his energy for mending. Of course this quickly became an argument not about the wounded man but about me, or, more specifically, about what Julia termed my stubborn disbelief in the world’s ability to maintain a position at odds with my own, which I felt was overstating the case.

Irony intact (one hopes that she was being ironic), Ostlund points how superfluous conversations can mask important connections to life.

It’s the teacher in her coming out, the importance of using the right words at the right times. Even a single word like broasted or brownness can speak volumes about a relationship or an environment:

Brownness had thus become their new word, for there seemed no other way to express it except by giving it the weight, the concreteness of nounhood – not just brown, but the state of being brown.

When it comes to report cards, she gets an A for analysis.

But it can be as much a curse as a blessing for a writer to be preoccupied with precision. For despite the exotic locales, Ostlund doesn’t stray far from her comfort zone in a large chunk of her stories.

Sara and Sarah, Bernadette and Sheila, “Felicity and I,” “Georgia and I” – her scholarly female characters are often attempting to parse their relationships in the same way that they try to teach their students to parse verbs, with much the same results. We come away with an interchangeable set of conflicted women.

That’s not to say that these relationships need resolution, but rather that I’d like to see Ostlund push herself further, take a step away from the essential difference between “I’m good” and “I’m well,” the oddness of being a Midwesterner in odd lands, and really test her boundaries.

Just as long as she doesn’t feel pressured to lose her ear or her wit. For who could forget Dr. Deneau, a pedantic math teacher who offers up a few suggestions for naming the Slow-Learners’ Group:

• the Mongrels
• the Chain Gang
• the Spuds.

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