“There will be no more good nights without good nights.”
This titular phrase in Laura van den Berg’s brief and beautiful collection of short stories thoughtfully toes a line between prophecy and command, resolution and insistence. Balancing on that line, the book is laid bare: van den Berg’s pieces are always pushing on an elastic wall between observer and observed – flexible in distance but absolute in scope – and the characters all seem to beg, if not for that disconnect to be removed, then at least to find their place in it. There Will Be No More Good Nights Without Bad Nights has the lovely ability to leave you satisfied by its sadness; at least surrendering to it affords the most honest version of ourselves.
With the consistency of a Lydia Davis collection, each story somehow involves unhappy marriages, broken ones, lost ones, or a combination of the three. In each of the nine pieces, however, just like Davis, van den Berg uses the seed of that melancholy to radically different ends: a child desperate to send herself to Mars, a fateful Monopoly board, the opening and eventual closing of an exotic reptiles store. In this way, marriage is a rhizome from which discrete realities grow. Marriage, the fundamental joining of a self to other, is splintered and dissected here. The results are stunning in every sense of the word, such as this picture of a mouth mounted to the wall:
“It looks like some kind of tunnel.”
It was, Lenore had realized after staring at the photograph for a while, the kind of boundless space she had pictured her son, and now her ex-husband, passing through during the moment their life turned to non-life, presence to absence, as though Mr. Masiki had photographed a hidden part of her consciousness and hung it on his living room wall.
Mr. Masiki, the next-door neighbor whom Lenore observes through three layers of separation – window, yard, window – is a perfect demonstration of everything van den Berg has the chops to pull apart and compress in the world of her stories, a gesture by characters hesitant to reach too far forward for fear of what they’ll find there, but with no option besides that leap.
And sometimes the world of the story is barely rooted in this one, where we could almost cry science fiction or fantasy, but not quite: the husband who trains his parakeets to turn against his cheating wife, or the fiancée who stows a dead tortoise away in her purse in order to give him a proper burial at home, the agency that guarantees second chances at life housed in an empty warehouse, staffed by people who seem half-invisible. These turns are at once playful and necessary for a deeper access to loneliness and emptiness and void, and van den Berg’s ability to stay hovering on the line is a skill she shares with writers like Aimee Bender – creators of a modern, grounded era of fantasy. Because, jesus, there are even cannibals.
The cannibals loved music. They’d found their instruments – a ukulele, an oboe, and a French horn – at a Salvation Army and paid for them with a dozen human teeth…The cannibals had cradled the instruments in their long arms and grunted. What’s the problem here? Their expressions seemed to say.
What’s the problem here? Like the titular phrase, this too plays atop a highwire. Is there nothing wrong, or is there something very wrong that we can’t pinpoint or trace? Or does one only point toward the other?
There Will Be No More Good Nights Without Good Nights says more in thirty-six pages than any book has business doing. It is, if not flash fiction, then a flash of something—of quiet chaos and quieter discovery, a flash of what could be solace in every unanswered question.