Book Review

When I was ten, playing in the Northwoods of Wisconsin, I gathered up some old Mason jars and built a zoo. Grasshoppers, dragonflies, toads, daddy longlegs—the whole gang was there. I poked air holes in the lids, and when it stormed that night, all of the animals drowned. Distraught, I held a funeral service and, in a small clearing in the woods, built a cemetery with sticks and smooth rocks. Twenty years later, reading Christian Felt’s The Lightning Jar, I find myself back in that radiantly dark spot in the woods, except this time I am not in Wisconsin but Sweden, and the animals here are as articulate as the humans.

The Lightning Jar, winner of the 2018 John Simmons Short Fiction Award, is Christian Felt’s debut story collection. A slender 136 pages, the book contains two story sets, two stories that read like memoir, and a final short story, “The Guest on Summer Island.” The story sets and final story, all written in the style of (and complemented with an epigraph by) Tove Jansson, embed the reader in a child’s world—one that is as disturbing as it is marvelous, as nonsensical as it is perfectly logical. In this world, children go cloud hunting at dawn, discover gold rings in the stomach of a dead whale, and dream, giddily, of being eaten by the mythical female Morra. Other characters come and go, Cousins and Guests and Locals, archetypes that perplex and intrigue, but they never quite become a part of the children’s private realities.

Like the story sets, the two memoir-like pieces in The Lightning Jar focus on family. In fact, the story sets and memoir-like pieces read as alternative versions of the same family history, presumably Felt’s, although this is never explicitly stated. In “Snow on Snow,” the narrator retells the story of his parents’ meeting and courtship, pondering the “propitious” circumstances that led to their eventual marriage, “the most fortunate of which was undoubtedly the language barrier.” (The narrator’s father, from Utah, meets the narrator’s mother while door-knocking in Sweden as a Mormon missionary.) Woven into this retelling are snippets of information about the musical system of ancient Greece: “a closed system of symbols that makes sense only if you already know what the symbols refer to.” In the second memoir-like piece, “The Little Mermaid and Me,” the narrator writes about his relationship with his cousin Eskild, reimagining it within the framework of the more disquieting, original Hans Christian Andersen tale. Individually and in sequence, these first-person pieces speak to the ways in which new stories evolve from old ones, within and across families and communities, and over time.

Rather than building to epiphany or resolution, the stories in The Lightning Jar offer moments of insight and humor, their meaning derived from Felt’s vivid, unsettling descriptions, which are reminiscent of a Ramona Ausubel text, as much as anything else. “Freja had begun to hack madly around the blowhole,” Felt writes of the protagonist-stuck-in-a-whale incident. “Mons fell onto the sand in a slurry of fat and blood that smelled strangely of violets.” It’s a curious, volatile world out there, such descriptions suggest, and isn’t that something to delight in?

Collectively, the pieces in The Lightning Jar also function as a meditation on transcription, transformation, and imagination. What gets lost and found, Felt asks, in the transition from childhood to adulthood, in the emigration from one country to another, in the telling of a story in this language instead of that one—or in telling stories at all. It’s hard to imagine a more relevant question than the last, considering the ways in which social media has made storytelling a central part of how we communicate with each other these days. What’s certain, Felt asserts, is that any type of storytelling is not without consequence. In “The Little Mermaid and Me,” he writes that “forgetting is essential to learning. While you sleep, old synapses are pruned, letting new ones grow. Writing is similar: when you dredge up a memory, part of it has rotted. Transcribing adds new threads and dyes. Writing about your life not only allows, but requires, you to change it.”

For any reader, The Lightning Jar is a recommended jaunt around the Swedish lakes and ponds beside which Felt’s characters carry out their adventures. For the reader who is themselves a storyteller—and these days, who isn’t?—the collection also serves as something of a fiction-writing instruction manual: this is how you take one version of the truth and rewrite it as another. Careful, though. Give a mermaid legs and she may never return to the sea. Or she will, if Hans Christian Andersen or Christian Felt are telling the story, but she’ll only end up drowning.

About the Reviewer

Elizabeth Boyle studied English and education at the University of Illinois and is a graduate of the University of Michigan Law School. Currently, she lives and teaches in Ann Arbor.