Booknotes: The First to Disappear

[This review first appeared in The Midwest Review.]

firsttodisappearPatty Somlo’s latest short story collection is titled ‘The First to Disappear,’ after the first story in the book. And, in a way, all the stories here are about people looking for things that have disappeared from them — whether that is a way of life, a person, an object, a pleasure, or an ideal.

There are eighteen unique stories here: tales of both illegal and legal immigrants; accounts of loners who have been marginalized by society due to racism, or ageism, or religion; narratives about faithful believers of the supernatural in our everyday worlds; and more.

Many aspects make these stories stand out. First, they cover a range of subjects — from racism to immigration to religion to terrorism to climate change. Then, the themes span wide too — whether they are about old age, death, superstitions, prejudice, heartbreak, or love. And, the way that Somlo blends traditional myths with modern worlds, without a join showing, is a striking feat.

The cast of characters is also wonderfully diverse and from many countries: Mexico, Central America, China, Lebanon, Africa, USA, etc. What is refreshing is how she has eschewed stereotypes and tropes to give us people who, though bound by their ethnicities and circumstances, draw us so immediately into their lives, fears, and hopes, that we cannot but root for them.

Somlo’s narrative style is that of a clear-eyed, neutral reporter. And, indeed, her career as a journalist has stood her in good stead in her fictional storytelling because she seamlessly weaves facts and realities with interesting what-if possibilities. The net result is a set of stories that showcase humanity from many perspectives, presenting all our vulnerabilities, values, joys, sorrows, and desires.

Descriptions of both settings and characters deserve a special mention too. With her reporter’s eye, Somlo quickly paints both places and people in ways that make us see them right away. This is most well done in her first story, ‘The First to Disappear’ as well as the Beckett-like ‘Where Waves Left Small Shells’.

A good number of the stories also have aspects of magical realism. For example: ‘Photograph of a Cemetery’; ‘Bird Women’; ‘The Virgin’.

The true beauty, though, of this collection is that each story is an actual “story” — by which, I mean, that each one has something interesting and different to offer. As Mark Haddon recently wrote in his now-famous Guardian article on short stories:

I have read too many beige short stories in my life, too many short stories that feel like five-finger exercises. There are limits to what can happen in the real world. In fiction there are no limits: anything is possible on paper. It seems to me that if you are writing a short story and it is not more entertaining than the stories in that morning’s newspaper or that evening’s TV news, then you need to throw it away and start again, or open a cycle repair shop.

These stories are anything but beige. They shimmer with all the colors of the rainbow, and they are definitely more interesting than what goes viral in news or social media these days. It is clear that Somlo writes for the sheer pleasure of writing and storytelling, and that pleasure transfers easily to us, her readers.

Let me end with some of Somlo’s own words from my favorite in this collection, the title story:

Meanwhile, the apples kept ripening. That sweet, crunchy fruit was not about to wait until the men and women who knew exactly when and how to pick them might decide to show up. No. They went from green to red, from pale to dark, from nubs the size of a thumb to substantial orbs you could use to play baseball. That fruit whose bright skins sheltered the sweet yellow-white interiors did not care what was happening in the country to cause those tough, familiar sun-burned fingers to disappear. The apples had a job to do and nothing and no one would stand in their way, even the heat that made the skin of those apples hot and coated with sweat.

Like these apples, Patty Somlo’s stories are ripe for the discerning reader’s picking and they will bring a sweet-tart pleasure to the palate.

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