It’s hard to admit to yourself that you’ve just read something you utterly don’t understand. With something like a physics textbook, or even a philosophical essay, the incomprehension with which you absorb the material seems more acceptable than when dealing with something like prose fiction, where the assumption (i.e., the cultural pressure) is that you can power your way through it with at least some vague interpretation. Pick a lens and go! seems to be the band-aid solution. Visual media are the same way: I sure as hell needed to consult Wikipedia to make sure I understood the intricacies of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, but I still understood the nuances of camera work, music, characterization. Sometimes that’s sufficient, and “counts” as having grasped the art you’ve consumed.
But sometimes you are just all out of band-aids, and that’s how I felt when reading Steven Gillis’ short story collection, The Law of Strings. The first story came to its final page to my surprise, as I literally hadn’t assumed I had gotten to the meat of the story yet, or any of the action. Gillis will do that, and seemingly by design: I was consistently thrown off in just the same way by every story to follow. Author Michael Griffith blurbs that Gillis “[explores] the intersections between quantum physics and everyday ethics, between cosmic law and domestic habit,” and that’s the most beautiful and true description I could’ve hoped for. But does recognizing those intersections in Gillis’s stories mean that I have sufficiently grasped each one? Is it enough to walk away from it recognizing beauty, while still being frustrated by the impotence of stories seemingly without endings?