“All happy families are alike,” Tolstoy claims in the opening line of Anna Karenina, “each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” A great line to be sure, though I would argue that most if not all families are unhappy, to a degree anyway, and moreover there is nothing unique about this unhappiness. Even the most stable of family dynamics is tinged with a measure of grief over the knowledge that our happiest moments are just that—moments. We outgrow each other, we outlive each other, and we rally, continually but fruitlessly, against this understanding.
If there’s a silver lining here, it’s that this sort of internal struggle makes for interesting art—in this case, Gretchen Comba’s debut story collection The Stillness of the Picture.
This is not to say that the book is about unhappy people. Rather, the characters in this collection are steeling themselves against familial change, a familiar conceit in contemporary short fiction which Comba handles with the grace and empathy of a veteran writer. The characters themselves are like figures in an old picture, worn with use and age but still discernable enough to provoke our curiosity. And by this measure, it shouldn’t be surprising that the opening story, which bears the same title as the collection itself, is about a photograph:
Ernesto he was a handsome one, seventeen and strapping from the coal he hauled, arms so big from auger work it took three hands to wrap about the muscle solid . . . When the Freeport Press come out to snap a picture he was the one front row, center, leaning just a little forward like a turf horse pounding out of dust, even in the stillness of the picture.
This wistful tone carries throughout the rest of the book. In “The Close and Faraway,” we meet a father grappling with his teenage daughter’s burgeoning adulthood. In “The Friction Point,” a young woman tries to maintain a connection with an older brother who seems to be slipping away. Then there’s “Shelter,” in which a mother and her daughter, still reeling from a tragic loss, batten down a home for an approaching hurricane.
Comba’s prose is simple, concise, perhaps a bit flavorless in spots, though it seems to reflect the sense of normalcy for which these characters are desperately fighting. Consider, for example, the opening passage of “The Close and Faraway”:
Edmund Fisher’s daughter Audry is going down to the old lake to swim. She is with Ricky Hunt, who is not a bad sort, but Edmund does not like him. Ricky has a rattail that runs halfway down his back, a rattail that is dry and coarse and coiled like a spring. And even though the other high school boys, the ones that Edmund sees in the aisles at the Safeway or the People’s Drug, all have rattails running down their backs, there is something particularly unnerving about Ricky’s. When Ricky comes to the house for Audry, Edmund has to fight the urge to get the kitchen scissors from the drawer.
While the collection’s language might not be rife with literary pyrotechnics, it is enough to move us deftly through the narratives, many of which take a leisurely circuitous route through memory and time. Comba is less interested in linearity as she in context; in stories like “The Friction Point” and “The History of Florida,” past and present wend themselves together into a knot that, in the hands of a lesser writer, might be too much to untangle, but which Comba ultimately resolves with skillfulness.
Subtlety is the name of the game here; Comba writes with a Hemingway-esque eye toward minimalism. In fact, if there’s a criticism to be leveled against The Stillness of the Picture, it’s that the author might be playing things a little too close to the vest. Most of the narratives are so subtle that on a traditional story graph they would affect only the slightest of bell curves. As the description on the book jacket proclaims, the characters in this collection rarely raise their voices. However, there’s an argument to be made that they should—sometimes, maybe a little. At times it seems like the author isn’t sure what to do with the narratives, where to steer the characters. They ruminate, they prevaricate, but when it comes to making those Big Decisions that short fiction demands, they are often reluctant, like in “The History of Florida”:
She knew she should wash and fold and pack the sheets, or just throw them away. but they somehow seemed to belong to the bed now, and so she let them stay as she lifted, pushed until the bed slid inside the belly of the loveseat. It was at that moment the bed became like a secret thing, an old letter or photograph put away in a secret box, meticulously wrapped in sheets of transparent paper then hidden between the folds of threadbare linen. And Avie thought how now it was more like a memory than a secret thing, a memory she shared with James . . . She thought how the next tenant would find it, like dried flowers pressed between the leaves of a book, and how it would become half memory and half imagining.
Here’s a wonderful setup for some sort of (presumably bed-related) treachery. But—and I don’t think I’m giving anything away here—that treachery doesn’t come. Instead, the story inches toward a no-frills conclusion that belies any opportunity to catch the reader off guard.
But then again, The Stillness of the Picture isn’t necessarily about Big Decisions or action. Comba wants us to watch her characters waffle, struggle, get mired in their own tentativeness. She wants us to figure out the things that they can’t—or won’t. And to that end she’s successful. One might find oneself wishing that the collection aspired for just a bit more, but the aspirations it does have are well met. It’s a noteworthy debut by a writer with remarkable compassion for her characters.
About the Reviewer
Jeremy Griffin is the author of the short fiction collection A Last Resort for Desperate People, from Stephen F. Austin University Press. His work has appeared in such journals as the Indiana Review, the Iowa Review, and Shenandoah. He is currently the 2017 Prose Fellow for the South Carolina Arts Commission, and he teaches at Coastal Carolina University where he is the fiction editor for Waccamaw: a Journal of Contemporary Literature.