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. Her friends sympathized, while secretly agreeing that they’d seen it coming…. Candayce had turned forty and no longer had the boundless energy that had characterized her thirties.
These are well-to-do people, the reader infers—part of the “economy drive” that characterizes Candayce’s reduced status is cutting back on private yoga sessions and doing without a maid service that provided “the daily hum of the vacuum cleaner” to fill household silence. It’s a measure of Citkowitz’s offhand humor, in the way of a less pun-inclined Lorrie Moore, that lamented Peanut is very likely an imposter, substituted by a deceptive yoga instructor who’d looked after the hamster while Candayce and her daughter were away. Candayce obsesses over the hamster—“Was it possible that she was imagining things and going insane?”—until at last she realizes that “it didn’t seem to matter who he was anymore.”
This slippage of identity and its attendant anxieties pervade all of Citkowitz’s stories. Like the teacup crack that opens into the land of the dead, her images are likely to be apprehended, initially, as small incidents or objects, opening into spiritual crisis or chaos. In “The Bachelor’s Table,” a husband and father and son-in-law (of a “certifiably awful” woman with a weakness for alcohol) finds himself in an ethical dilemma: through an elderly sales clerk’s error, he has purchased an antique Cuban mahogany table, circa 1780—“rich and mottled as plum pudding, smoothed by age and use”—for approximately one tenth of its worth. When the panicked sales clerk confronts Jonathan, begging him to return the table, he promises to speak with the antique shop owner, but soon he finds the temptation to keep the table all but irresistible—“I don’t know…what it is about this desk. I still kind of like it,” he tells the owner in a pretense of naiveté.
Significantly, the hurried transaction has taken place on Christmas Eve, reminding him of an unpleasant scene with his father that had taken place years before when he’d been sent by his mother to ask for money from this man he’d never seen before, a wealthy art critic and collector with “reptilian eyelids.” Cruelly indifferent to his son, this narcissistic father takes the boy on a tour of his lavishly furnished townhouse near Central Park West as if to arouse in the boy a yearning for beautiful, unattainable things; cynically he encourages the boy to become a lawyer, so that “you can look after your mother.” It happens that one of the father’s prized possessions is a “bachelor’s table”: “‘C’est un objet qui m’est cher.’ He looked like a crocodile, with his eyes barely open and his unbelievable large bite.” Two years later, when the father dies, it’s revealed that Jonathan has been left nothing—“Only the memory of a smile.” We see what the “bachelor’s table” means to the adult Jonathan—and why it will remain unattainable.
In “The Clearance,” George, a divorced husband and father on poor terms with both his ex-wife and his adolescent daughter, takes on the Herculean task of “house clearing” for a wealthy estate in a London suburb—“We go in after the family have squabbled over the furniture and the antique dealers—bloody crooks—have cherry-picked the best bits and everyone is too shagged to care about the rest.” An accretion of domestic detritus suggests the squalid end of a family line—“There had been plenty of info about [the] mother’s colorful life, and lurid accounts of [the] father’s death in a bizarre autoerotic mishap”—but George, oddly devoted to his trade, and very good at it, approaches the house clearing with an almost Zen-like concentration:
His taciturn nature was suited to handling and sorting, and he had the nose and instinct for the hunt: all he needed was a whiff of possibility and he’d be off in dogged pursuit…. But his interest wasn’t only financial. George had a deeper connection with his work. There was an absorbing mystery attached to an object: stripped of context, with its history forgotten, all that was left was the thing itself, it became pure again—pure as when it had first been made. And yet, very occasionally, George felt something more: the residue of the previous owner…. When that happened, George was warmed by the knowledge that probably he alone recognized the special significance of the item. These quiet moments gave George confidence and pride. They were, for him, an occupational privilege.
Perhaps because George so clearly displays the writer’s attentiveness to (seemingly) inconsequential detail, his story doesn’t end nearly so grimly as others in the aptly titled Ether: it’s a clever fusion of hyperrealism and fantasy like one of Roald Dahl’s deftly told, more benign tales.
Dangerously alcoholic—yet still attractive—mothers figure in the background of several stories, as in the foreground of the two-page “Careful Mummy” in which a drunken mother frightens her young child with premonitions of mortality—“She’s truly horrified,“ she says of the child. “Is repulsion for the aged primal and not conditioned?” Like these dangerous mothers, adolescent girls exude an aura of the undefined, and are thus distressing: in the confessional “Sunday’s Child,” a single woman who has adopted a mentally disabled boy is confounded by her instinctive repudiation of a homeless adolescent girl she discovers on her property, as if she had only just enough generosity of spirit for one abandoned child, and no other:
I found a girl in the playhouse last week.
She was curled up on the loveseat, her back to the door.
She was too big to lie straight….
I told myself she could be dangerous.
She could be on crack.
She makes me scared.
She must go.
Citkowitz is very good at suggesting the adoptive mother’s ambivalence about her damaged child, even as she’s suffused with a sense of her own goodness; the adoption has been a desperate attempt to stave off loneliness following a succession of failed relationships with men and an acting career of unqualified “mediocrity.” As the (black, mute) child Ambrose is a misfit at school, so his mother sees herself with pitiless irony: “Intriguing European ingénue well and truly gone. Blousy LA loon, how the heck are you?” Yet she’s easily wounded by another’s more objective assessment: “She’s a consummate actress. When she’s not in character, it’s hard to tell who she really is.” Her motive for adopting a child in her reduced and solitary circumstances is idealistic—or narcissistic: “I wanted to be bigger than the sum of my weaknesses.”
Ambrose, the damaged child, is pathologically attached to his mother—“sucking into me like a starfish”—and afflicted with something called “selective mutism.” He’s an “undesirable” orphan who was easy to adopt:
They didn’t find any physical brain damage, but there’s damage that doesn’t show up on scans…. We know that his mother’s prenatal diet of crack cocaine didn’t exactly boost his IQ, and there’s three and a half years of trauma and neglect to factor in.
By the story’s end we learn that the enormous guilt she feels for having sent the homeless girl away springs from her memory of having had an abortion as a young woman: “Twenty-two years ago, when life was cheap—abortions were just another form of birth control.” Her ambivalence about herself as a mother, like her “maternal” feelings for Ambrose, are qualified by her diminished sense of herself as selfish and hypocritical:
…I got pregnant. I didn’t want the baby. Didn’t even think about keeping the baby. So I had it terminated. If that child had lived…it would have been about the age of the girl in the shed.
After she left, something died in me again.
Ambrose was essentially homeless when I took him in. Why wasn’t there room for one more?
Citkowitz’s satiric eye is evident in a slighter story, “Leavers’ Events,” in which Beatty, the feckless, spoiled, and not-very-bright adolescent daughter of a British fashion magazine editor, becomes foolishly infatuated with her English instructor, deftly sketched in a few telling lines:
Connor Quinn had only been teaching at the school for a year. At the time his appointment was considered radical: a youngish Irish novelist with literary credentials and little teaching experience, heading the English department at an exclusive girls’ school. The Board of Governors had believed that Connor Quinn, a man with just the right amount of notoriety attached to his name, could shake off an unhelpfully crusty image that the school had accrued in the course of eighty years.
Beatty’s naive hope for a romantic/ sexual liaison with Quinn is thwarted when she chatters inanely to him about “do[ing] Oxbridge” and she winds up with a job for which she isn’t qualified at her mother’s magazine, where, in time, “her metamorphosis from dumpy schoolgirl to ‘English eccentric’ was better than going unnoticed, the equivalent of career-cancer in her field.” Unable to believe that Connor Quinn has totally forgotten her, Beatty telephones him from her new quarters in New York City and is crushed when he has no idea who she is. “Leavers’ Events”—from its blunt flat title onward—has the air of a fiction à clef but its satiric figures are too lightly sketched to exert much resonance, like the callow nanny of “Baby Charmer” and her affluent and self- absorbed Los Angeles clients.
As the mentally disabled Ambrose is a focus for the fierce, thwarted maternal yearnings of a no-longer-young neurotic actress in the story “Sunday’s Child,” so a misfit boy named Dennis becomes the focus for the maternal yearnings of a young, newly married, neurotic actress in Citkowitz’s novella “Ether.” Both stories contain glancing satiric asides directed toward practitioners of the arts—acting, moviemaking, writing—amid an abiding concern for the protection and well-being of vulnerable children. Unlike the mute, traumatized Ambrose, Dennis is a highly intelligent if naively unsocialized boy exhibiting traits of what appears to be Asperger’s syndrome. While his high school classmates behave like idiots, Dennis is attuned to higher matters:
There was the universe, so big and infinite, which he experienced as a series of pulsing connections that sometimes shocked like electricity in the brain. When he saw a student spitting obscenities at him, Dennis saw them as an anthropological speck, the offspring of a generational mutation that went all the way back to the most significant time of human evolution…. He could trace his tormentor’s shortcomings all the way back to his ancestors and satisfy himself that such pre- Neanderthal behavior was because his predecessors were the last to make that great leap and separate themselves from apes.
If Dennis is just a little too TV-cute, an unfailingly angelic adolescent boy demonized as a stalker and a “psycho” by one of his adult neighbors, he’s a welcome contrast to the shallow, conniving, and self-deceiving Hollywood/ New York City characters who populate “Ether.”
Where deftness and concision are admirable in shorter forms of fiction, usually though not invariably narrated from a single perspective and traversing time and space with rigorous economy, longer forms of fiction require other strategies to sustain them, primarily, in realistic fiction, the development of character. Ambitious in concept, the cryptically titled “Ether” isn’t altogether fully realized in execution, nor does it seem to have a central focus. Set beside Joan Didion’s laconic Play It as It Lays—the quintessential tale of “etherized” experience in Los Angeles/Hollywood—“Ether” seems both underimagined and overly emphatic.
The most compelling passages are concerned with the relationship between the misfit boy Dennis and the beautiful young “new star” Madeleine, but the novella’s disappointing protagonist is a slack-bodied, middle-aged novelist named William who, afflicted by “writer’s block” after the alleged success of his first novel, has come to Los Angeles to teach creative writing at UCLA. Scenes in which William meets, falls in love with, and manages to seduce the very young Madeleine rush past like a sped-up film, lacking plausibility; seeing Madeleine through William’s eyes, we are confronted with generic fantasy:
…She was the only woman in the room to whom a superlative could apply. William had seen enough pretty girls in his time. He’d even known a few. Manhattan was full of them…. What they had in common was a uniformity of features: the blank canvas kind that could be transformed by makeup and lighting. Rarely did they have presence.
Madeleine was the exception.
Hers was a face you might see on a wall in the Uffizi or a hall in the Louvre: unadorned, serious loveliness.
“And she’s a nice person. She’s into civil rights and whatnot,” Red said, depositing [William]…in front of her.
It’s likely that the callow William would be attracted to a beautiful young actress, but not very likely, at least as Citkowitz presents it, that the twenty-three-year-old woman would fall in love with him so quickly and unwarily; in outline suggestive of a young Angelina Jolie, with a seemingly sincere altruistic interest in Darfur, Madeleine isn’t a very convincing portrait of an actress, let alone a wildly successful star.
One thing for sure, there was a connection between elevated anxiety and the commotion accompanying the release of her last two movies. The films, both high-end thrillers, had gone on to make astronomical amounts at the box office, marking her ascendancy as the brightest new star. Her position in the constellation made her uneasy and showed what professional success could and couldn’t do…. She had lost the ability to feel her way forward guided by the promise of something, a fantasy of what life would be like if it were different…. Now, anything less than A-list stardom was no longer an option.
We have little sense of Madeleine as a celebrity, and still less as a jaded celebrity; Citkowitz’s portrait of the failed “mediocre” actress of “Sunday’s Child” is far more believable.
Immediately after meeting Madeleine, William begins violating the in- timacy of their relationship by embark- ing upon a “stream-of-consciousness” novel titled William and Madeleine, which seems to jolt his writer’s block; soon after their marriage, Madeleine becomes afflicted with a mysterious, seemingly psychosomatic disorder and begins treatment with a Los Angeles New Age physician: “You can laugh, but he has the capacity to think outside the box—he’s combined the best of Eastern med-icine with the best of Western medicine.” To his credulous writing students, William mouths banalities in the guise of literary conceits: “Writing was the ‘fecund body grappling with itself.'” Madeleine’s disillusion with her husband intensifies when she discovers the “quasi-fiction” in which he has plagiarized his own life and exploited their marriage as well as creating a caricature of his neurotic actress-wife: “The betrayal was beyond. It defied all principles of intimacy.”
Predictably, the marriage ends. William’s former lover, an editor for a New York publishing house, shuns the wretched man, too: “There was nothing aphrodisiac about failure.” After a sketchy cinematic coda in which Madeleine is reincarnated as what William calls “trailer-trash,” he returns to New York City and the remnants of his old life in which, in the emotionally fraught days after September 11, he’d befriended an elderly neighbor, a Polish survivor of the death camp at Chelmno named Esther. Already, Madeleine seems to have been forgotten as William turns his thoughts to finding Esther, with the quixotic expectation that she’s still alive: “There was always the chance she would tell him the end of her story.”
In this way, “Ether” ends on a note of hope, or willful delusion—perhaps, in Citkowitz’s unsparing vision, the two are not so very different. Where the disjointed novella strikes more thematic chords than it satis- factorily resolves, the stronger stories of Ether are tautly narrated explorations of contemporary American dissociation and aloneness told without sentiment or excess. As the left- behind wife of “Happy Love” observes: “Death is experiential. There is no preparation.“