How coolly poised, Evgenia Citkowitz’s prose! And how elegantly and richly detailed her fictional worlds! It’s something of a shock then to realize that in this debut collection the young author is depicting individuals devastated by emotion, if not decorticated, numbed—like the betrayed and left-behind wife of the ironically titled “Happy Love,” who bears a curious sort of compulsive witness to the “slo-mo” death of her daughter’s hamster:
…Candayce took the Critter Condo into the stately dining room and placed it on the polished table that was never used. She sat staring into the cage, watching for [the hamster’s] breathing, almost imperceptible now. From time to time, she took out his limp body and stroked his matted fur, uttering soothing thoughts to him. His fur was bedraggled and wet, she realized, from the tears dripping down her nose and cheeks.
Suddenly, a yet more powerful image breaks into Candayce’s consciousness, with the vengeful force of the repressed:
She remembered her mother’s transfiguration. The three weeks it took for her limbs to waste, her skin to turn a liverish yellow, and her mind to wash away on a sea of morphine. Afterward, the jocose Irish nurse opened the windows to set free her soul. Candayce looked at her mother’s frozen rictus—no soul there—and said, “I thought the dead were meant to look peaceful.”
In each of these sharply observed, resolutely unsentimental, and wholly engaging works of prose fiction—seven stories and a 117-page novella detailing a particularly cruel form of marital betrayal—it’s the ordinariness of heartbreak that Citkowitz’s characters are forced to confront—the “soul-destroying loneliness” of daily life. This is not elevated tragedy or even the more familiar fissures of domestic drama but the stoic-melancholy vision of W.H. Auden, for whom “the crack in the teacup opens/A lane to the land of the dead.”
Cracks, not fissures, are the fault lines of Citkowitz’s stories of individuals, both female and male, of varying ages though primarily middle-aged, who find themselves entrapped in “slow-mo” death throes akin to those of poor Peanut the hamster, who’d been, in his prime, “a dervish, racing across an imaginary desert in a DNA-induced panic…racing manically on [the] wheel” of his Critter Condo treadmill. “Happy Love,” the first story in the collection, strategically frames, with the longer and more complex tale of marital betrayal “Ether,” six tales of kindred revelations: just as one learns that it isn’t the small hamster death that has unnerved the left-behind wife Candayce but the death of her mother, so one learns that it isn’t so much the breakup of her marriage that has hurt her—“No one died from infidelity”—but her ex-husband’s gleeful announcement that his next, very young wife is pregnant:
Candayce had known Max had wanted another child but hadn’t taken in how much. The betrayal was incredible …