Early on, Mariel told me she wasn’t one to dwell on the past,” discloses the narrator of “Oceanic,” speaking about a formative romance, though it’s later understood that she harbors a good reason not to. Yet the stories of Paper Lantern—one of two recently released short story collections (the other being Ecstatic Cahoots) from Chicago-born writer Stuart Dybek—tend to do just that: dwell on the bygone lives and loves of its stifled characters.
The nine stories that comprise this collection reflect on the mostly ephemeral romances of its characters—pieced together in Dybek’s wandering fashion—drawing from the unsystematic memories of the narrators. In “Four Deuces” a Polish-American couple, by some good (and eventually doomed) fortune, come to own a bar in Pilsen. Then there’s the Chicago case-worker in “Seiche” who has an affair with his client, a single-mother of a terminally ill child, and his younger self, a college student who dates a Rumi-quoting Persian girl. In “Waiting,” a couple spend their days together in a lakeside cottage in Michigan.
Paper Lantern, which for the most part is rooted in Chicago and the surrounding Midwest, bears a somewhat mawkish subtitle—“Love Stories”—and while it’s true that the collection concerns the mostly failed or former loves of its characters, the subtitle seems too simple a descriptor for these varied and elegant stories, which could be read individually, and that is for the best.
If love is the intended theme of Paper Lantern, then memory, as it discursively unfolds, is Dybek’s modus operandi. In “Oceanic,” one of the best stories in the book, a military academy student (nicknamed “Byron”) dates a girl, Mariel, whose fixation on a stranded umbrella reveals a haunting past. The story unfolds in nine numbered sections, becoming increasingly surreal and dreamlike, before Dybek bookends the story with a seemingly cursory prose poem that actually serves as a gentle refrain to the story’s thematic arc. Taken as a whole, the effect is strangely unsettling.
Dybek, who is also a poet, has a knack for such sensual, dreamlike, and, at times, surreal imagery—Paper Lantern takes its epigraph from Keat’s “Ode On a Grecian Urn.” But Dybek is also refreshingly literate in his writing (though not hyper-literate). There’s a first-person discussion of Hemingway and a girlfriend defends her love of Dawn Powell, which clues us to her character’s growing misgivings. “Waiting,” involves a lengthier account of the concept of waiting in literature, from Kafka to Joyce. For the most part, these discussions are woven successfully into the dramatic arc of the stories they inhabit, speaking more to the organic idiosyncrasies of these stories than anything else. These stories are tonally and narratively diverse enough to never feel repetitious, mostly thanks to Dybek’s affecting prose, through which these varied and elegant stories reach occasional moments of gorgeous delirium (like in “Oceanic”) or staid disclosure (“Waiting”).
With any of these stories, one would be hard-pressed to draw a linear line from beginning to end. Instead, Dybek moves—metastasizes, really—from one scene to another. These stories choose their own structures. Characters and lovers fade in and out of view, while Dybek interpolates scenes of distant memories within the larger threads of his characters’ lives.
Take the first story “Tosca” for example, which begins with a peremptory “Ready! Aim!”—halting just shy of the final command in a militaristic execution sound-off. Here, Dybek, in cinematic fashion, suspends the scene, and enters the thoughts of the armed soldiers, considering the “phantasmal” woman who appears between them and the man they are about to execute. From this suspended scene of execution, Dybek takes us to a different scene: of a man and woman, lovers, in bed in a room adjacent to Chicago’s El tracks. What follows is a winding tale of peripherally connected love stories, friendships, and dramaturgy. Dybek returns at last to the execution scene, which appears to be taken straight from a Puccini opera. Already, Dybek has set forth his method of discursive narrative: moving laterally, as one scene dissolves into another.
Not every story in Dybek’s collection is equally successful, though. “Four Deuces” and “The Caller” lose their direction slightly, at times reading more like series of imagistic scenes, but failing to amount to anything more than that. When the woman of “Four Deuces” finishes recounting the tale of how she and her husband came to own a bar and the subsequent disintegration of their relationship, the emotional resonance that Dybek is reaching towards isn’t fully earned. Still, those are slight glitches.
In the title story, which was first printed in The New Yorker in 1995 and republished the following year in the anthology Best American Short Stories 1996, a group of scientists take a break from building a time machine—a fitting invention in Dybek’s universe—to eat dinner at a former-laundromat Chinese Restaurant. When they return to their building, they find it consumed in flames (thanks to the Bunsen burner they failed to turn off). The image of the undulating flames brings the narrator to recall an affair he once had with a married woman, and the road trip they took to Chicago together.
But what comes of the romance in “Paper Lantern,” or in the other stories? It’s never fully clear. Dybek feels no need to overwhelm us with detail or story, nor is there a traditional sense of resolution. Long after the relationship in “Paper Lantern” comes to its logical close, the narrator reveals that the woman asked him what came of the photographs he took of her on that Chicago trip. He lies to her and tells her he burned them, when actually he kept them hidden in an envelope, finding some sense of assurance in their preservation. But this image is immediately undermined when Dybek returns to the scene of the fire from the beginning, in which he describes an image of a red paper lantern as being consumed in the flames: “a paper lantern that once seemed fragile, almost delicate, but now obliterates the very time and space it once illuminated.” Even the most portent memories, the narrator observes, are only fleeting. Why else would he be building a time machine?
Stuart Dybek, Paper Lantern. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 224 pages.