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Stuart Dybek is a writer who is often associated with the working-class neighborhoods of Chicago. His work is gritty, and it's emotional. But he also incorporates elements of magical realism, dreams and fantasies. Here's author Meg Wolitzer with a review of Dybek's latest story collection.
MEG WOLITZER: The book is called "Paper Lantern." Its subtitle is "Love Stories." But that doesn't begin to capture the expansiveness of these stories, their engagement with memory, their strangeness. There's a haunting one about halfway through called "The Caller." A telephone in the home of a man named Rafael who isn't there just keeps ringing and ringing, and Dybek gives us a feel for the unquiet life of the owner of that phone.
Chicago does figure in here, but instead of being the Windy City, it's a slippery one. Everything changes, becomes something else. Like in the title story, a group of scientists are in a laboratory building a time machine. They go out to a Chinese restaurant which serves dishes like pine nut porridge and nests of predigested seaweed from the beaks of swifts. And at the end of the meal, they crack open a fortune cookie to read the words, fuel alone will not light a fire. And someone asks, say, did anyone turn off the Bunsen burner when we left? When they get back to the lab, the place has gone up in flames. The fire dredges up all kinds of thoughts and images for the narrator. He thinks, I once snapped a photograph of a woman I was with as she watched a fire blaze out of control along a river in Chicago. She was still married then.
Those sudden swerves are what Dybek does best. Soon we're in a car with this woman on a night drive to Iowa. The relationship gets explored further and further, and finally she observes, the backseat of a car at night on a country road, adultery has a disconcerting way of turning adults back into teenagers. Dybek has a way of turning adults back into previous versions of themselves, too. But what I'll remember about this book isn't what happens necessarily or who it happens to. Instead it's the moments that rise up out of Chicago or out of the flames, a little alarming, a little wonderful.
If you want to see how Dybek works on a more micro level, the publisher is also releasing a volume called "Ecstatic Cahoots" which includes 50 stories, most of them very short. In fact the first one, "Mysterioso," which is just a dialogue between two people, is so short that I can read the whole thing right now. (Reading) You're going to leave your watch on? You're leaving on your cross?
CORNISH: That was author Meg Wolitzer. The book she reviewed was "Paper Lantern" by Stuart Dybek.
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