March 19, 2007KR Blog

What happens to those fiction authors after a Review or two?

Late winter and early spring grant us the kind of weather best spent indulging in stores with great, towering wooden shelves and that unmistakable book smell. I stumbled upon Calamity and Other Stories by Daphne Kalotay in Three Lives & Company, one of those independent bookstores that still tucks a thick, carefully designed bookmark in each tome upon purchase (hey, any advertising must help). I found this bookmark travelled swiftly through Kalotay’s short story collection, while my plane travelled less swiftly across the country.

Jhumpa Lahiri raves just inside this front cover, “Daphne Kalotay’s stories… are old-fashioned in the best sense of the word, plainspoken and melancholy, about ordinary people struggling with the trials of ordinary life. Few writers I know speak… with such clear-eyed compassion, such quiet humor and grace.”

I believe Lahiri has pegged at least half of this work. This is Kalotay’s first published book, and though one or two of each of these pieces made it into The Missouri Review, The Michigan Quarterly, Prairie Schooner, AGNI, and Good Housekeeping, it’s tough to establish oneself as an author without at least an internet fanbase. Kalotay, like Gallant before her, makes a valiant effort to tie all of her characters together by the end of the collection. She indeed exhibits humor and grace as Lahiri promised, but naturally – this being a compiliation of short stories – some chapters stood out from the others.

“The Man from Allston Electric” struck me as the story most able to stand independently of the rest. Rhea, arguably Kalotay’s most sympathetic character, calls the electric company when her electrical outlet in the living room prevents her from completing her doctoral dissertation. This is the latest of many devices to fall into disrepair in the year since her fiance left. In a perfectly unremarkable moment where a repairman struggles to fix a cord, Kalotay manages to connect two strangers in a remarkably touching light. The stranger proceeds to care for Rhea in a way that never goes beyond professional. And the reader follows Rhea’s small steps, reaching out to the man and withdrawing from him: The small wave of relief she felt at having this attended to took Rhea by surprise. It was immediately followed by a small wave of shame. She was ashamed of needing him, of needing a man to step up on a chair for her. Never has the act of washing bugs from a light cover taken on such a compelling sense of gratitude.

The attention to detail Kalotay lavishes on these minute events builds an emotional story. I was disappointed, however, that she succumbs to sentimentality by the end of the piece; Rhea’s breakdown could be sealed without the sunset and tears.

The author avoids this same sentimentality in her next story about Rhea, “Calamity.” Its tone is sharper, shooting for wit in its first half and resonance at the end. The protagonist has snapped the moment the story begins, whetting the reader’s appetite, and she witholds secrets until the story’s climax. The scene takes place on a nightmarish plane ride full of malfunctioning hydraulic systems and dangling oxygen masks; Rhea is transformed from a quiet student to a cruel beast, unleashing her tongue upon the unlucky woman next to her, making the reader laugh and wince at the same time. (I read this particular section on an airplane.) A flawless simulation of turbulence, and the nerves hit therein. The level of situational comedy is rivaled only by “Rehearsal Dinner,” which precedes “Calamity”: a scene with a married pair that runs like machinery, and their talking rented car.

Kalotay is at her best describing outlandish and somehow perfectly rational neuroses, especially in her female characters. Rhea is the most concrete example of this, but it appears also in Annie and Eileen, older women who appear in “A Brand New You” and “Anniversary,” respectively.

Eileen tends to chew the last of restaurant peppermints “with gratification;” she has gums that “cause the dentist to make all sorts of worrisome comments;” and she was deeply loved by her young husband (whom she met at a kibbutz) until the day he died. Annie meets Eileen every week for twelve years in a restaurant with a faded “Please Do Not Double Parking” sign on the door. Annie herself “finds things at flea markets and thinks them bargains… Being a professor of philosophy, she can get away with this kind of thing.” One of the best lines in “Anniversary” – Eileen’s story – belonged to Annie. “It’s true I’m a bit psychic,” Annie admits, sipping her tea. “Just not in any particularly useful way.”

Given these details, I don’t have to tell you that the characters are endearing. Beyond that, they’re human. In the midst of all this detail, the author’s imagined world is never infeasible. Characters bail out of relationships on the side of the road; they lose quarters in laundry machines; they poke at the fruit in their sangria. Kalotay has a gift, too, for set-up: she places a flirtatious piano instructor at an upscale neighborhood party held by his clients’ parents, a young couple recovering from a long-distance relationship in a house built by their overeager landlord (who is far from a capable carpenter), a comical and well-meaning French teacher who speaks no French in a room full of high schoolers in need of prom dates and extra credit. These scenes have an effortless humor and even manage to achieve poignancy in only a few pages.

It’s a small bereavement, then, to which I call attention here. I found Kalotay fell into a trap many writers do when they try to bridge a gender gap in fiction: her male protagonist’s perspective slipped into that of a female writer when she described a female through his eyes. Virtually every writer brave enough to experiment with gender has come across this.

In “All Life’s Grandeur,” Geoff speaks so delicately and candidly about his adolescent body that I didn’t have to flip to the front cover to double-check that the author was female. But when he moves on to describe his younger girl friend, Geoff’s adjectives become unnatural: Valerie’s wispy shape would change soon, too, I found myself thinking. This seemed even more unfitting when Kalotay’s desire for detail clashed with a thirteen-year-old, male narrator in “Prom Season”: There had been one steamy day, a year before, when Mack looked over and saw she’d hiked her rayon skirt up above her knees, onto her thighs. That image returned to him often, the fabric piled there lightly across her flesh. This sounds like a romance novel out of context; within the story, it is less out of place than out of character.

The final story in this collection, “Wedding at Rockport,” is one with such a large number of interesting characters going through pivotal moments simultaneously, it is incredible that Kalotay has managed to equip the reader with enough backstory to appreciate each one. There’s great payoff in a collection like this one.

I have found no books by Kalotay since Calamity was released in 2005, but I look forward to seeing more of her, in The Missouri Review and beyond.