A review of Elizabeth Routen’s Voices on the Stair: Collected Stories

There are stories about war, about those who just don’t fit into society, about the US South, and the dissolution of marriage, of life, its limitations and occasional tender beauty. There are unattractive waitresses, fat men, poseurs, blind men, mothers, killers; the beautiful and the damned. Above all, the stories are disturbing, as if some part of the reader’s own longing, and occasional feelings of emptiness were being opened for inspection, revealed through the daily smiles and superficial routine.
Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

Voices on the Stair
ISBN: 0-7388-5835-8
By Elizabeth Routen
Published by Xlibris, April 2001
236pp, $16 usd
http://www.etext.org/Zines/Critique/voices/index.html

A boy faces the suicide of his father; a man faces the suicide of his wife. An old man is at the end of his life. Unknown, alone. People leave home, and return only to find themselves still absent. People search, and yearn, but never find the answers to the vague desire for some form of meaning, some signpoint, something more to life than what they’ve already found. In Elizabeth Routen’s 33 collected Stories, Voices on the Stair , the characters are always in search of something, waiting or looking, whether it be for a lost parent or lover, or for escape from the emptiness of their daily routine. The stories are mainly sad, even at their most ironic. Lonely characters, human frailty, shadow, misunderstanding, and vague longing; waiting for life to begin. There are stories about war, about those who just don’t fit into society, about the US South, and the dissolution of marriage, of life, its limitations and occasional tender beauty. There are unattractive waitresses, fat men, poseurs, blind men, mothers, killers; the beautiful and the damned. Above all, the stories are disturbing, as if some part of the reader’s own longing, and occasional feelings of emptiness were being opened for inspection, revealed through the daily smiles and superficial routine.

Routen has an excellent command of the English language, creating fresh and moving similies, such as the description of two young girls, “their long hair swinging like tufts of dandelion seeds in the wind”, a dying limb “turning black like a slab of week-old hamburger”, a smile “broad and flat as a liar’s smile. When an old man dies, the tension was dissolved from the air like the pop of a faded string. The writing is brutally honest, sincere, and not afraid to look at the ugliness in every situation, from the misplaced red lipstick, to the empty longing under the pseudo sophisticated façade in such characters as Philippe Candlebras, Audrey Wheeler, and Sam Quarter. Innocence is destroyed, the beautiful die, and the phony is revealed. Even the most perfect mothers seem to have an air of the artificial about them. Even at its blackest though, the writing can be funny, wry, sardonic, and pithy, as in the terrific opening of Audrey Wheeler, Esq: “What struck him about the grotesque effigy of a human being that sat devouring the largest order of onion rings ever friend in God’s “own Louisiana was how obnoxiously serene he seemed”. (33). It can also be beautiful, as in “She closed her eyes and died, the little parts that die in the middle of the night” or in the very moving story of Doran, “His brown eyes were bold, and still pieces of him (broken) floated murkily in their depths. Every now and then one would surface, screaming, straining, giving”.

Despite the linguistic sophistication and power in the writing, there are a few flaws in this collection. Firstly, the stories are too uneven, with pieces of flash fiction, and even a poem, appearing out of place, and distracting the reader from the longer and stronger pieces. The short story is a complex form, forcing the writer to do a lot with language in few words, develop character, plot, drama, tension, and meaning in the space it takes the reader of a novel to just come to terms with the story. The very short pieces such as Proving Mr Perkins, Finding Sad Bird, Foreign Correspondent, a Prisoner’s Dilemma, and Basic Flaws, tend to take away attention from the more intense longer stories, interrupting the flow, and diminishing the power of the others in their brief musings.

Another problem is that, occasionally, the writing is a little too overblown, attempting a sophisticated philosophic stance that doesn’t always fit the narrator. For example, “the cat lurched upon the patronising do-gooder – kindred were the vagrant wanderers – kindred were the spirits who wanted to love”, “His construction worker pathos could be a treat”, or “so Audrey did what his primordial will willed him to do and let the undulations of his tongue lick fathomless rot from failure”. There are also times when the actual plot line or thread of the story is obscure, and hard to follow. This occurs, for example, in Finding Sad Bird, where it is hard to work out why the couple is shipwrecked, and why one has to save herself, or in Between These Two, where it is difficult to work out who the woman is, why a specific type of mohair scarf is needed, and why the woman will be there for Xmas, or if she will be there at all. In A Sense of Being, we have a sudden change of viewpoint into a character who was only vaguely hinted at prior to the last sentence. The writing can be a little too submerged, leading us into a kind of shared understanding between characters which is oblique to the reader, as if we were walking into a private conversation, without enough preliminary to allow us to join in.

However, despite its flaws, Voices on the Stairs is a well written, ambitious and unusual collection of stories, which attempts to uncover some of depth and loneliness in human existence, and the often futile search for meaning, especially in the short, painful lives of the characters who populate the book. The stories are entertaining and deep, and in light of its authors youth, hint at a very exciting talent.

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