Friday, August 8, 2014

Acts of God, by Ellen Gilchrist

Ellen Gilchrist is a much-lauded writer of short stories.  Throughout Acts of God, her twelfth collection, people deal with a variety of crises and disasters--hurricanes, tornadoes, terrorist threats, serious illness, neighborhood disagreements (okay, that doesn't really qualify as a crisis)--and the ways in which people respond to them. Often, those responses are impressive: In "Miracle in Adkins, Arkansas," a teenage girl helps rescue a baby from the wreckage of a tornado and finds her perspective on life changed. A young single mother and college professor who serves in the National Guard is called to help in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina; her first rescue, of a young girl, has unexpected outcomes. Three men somewhat fool-heartedly refuse to evacuate during Katrina, but prove they made the right decision by volunteering at a stricken hospital.

My two favorite stories are darker. In the title story,  when an elderly couple's caretaker doesn't show up for work, they decide to drive to the grocery store themselves. The outing ends tragically, when the husband drives into a pit on a construction site and both are killed. While many of their family members are furious with the caretaker, their eldest son describes their demise as "a sad but brilliant death"--and this seems right (and who wouldn't want a brilliant death?). Somewhat similarly, in "The Dissolution of the Myelin Sheath," Philipa has been diagnosed with MS. While her husband wants to take her to Mayo or another one of the "best" hospitals, Philipa has other plans. She carefully plots her suicide so her family members will be shielded from its reality--she jumps overboard near the motor of a cruise ship.  Her note to her husband ends, "Nothing is of value except to have lived well and to die without pain."

Gilchrist's stories are not as opaque as many of the short stories that cause me to ask, when I get to the end, "What?"  Her writing is straightforward and generally unornamented. Thus, I feel somewhat hypocritical, or at least recalcitrant, admitting that when I get to the end of Gilchrist's stories, I find myself asking, "So what?" There just doesn't seem to be a lot of heft there. Given Gilchrist's reputation, I'm willing to accept that the fault is with me and not the stories. While I wouldn't advise people to avoid Acts of God,  I also wouldn't suggest rushing out to get it.

Favorite passage:
I'm not interesting. I'm a cliche inside a self-fulfilling prophecy inside a stereotype.

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