Embracing Ambiguity

The short stories of Tucsonan Johanna Skibsrud read like poems, sometimes leaving it up to you to intuit their meaning

A character in one of Johanna Skibsrud's recently reprinted, finely rendered short stories develops a fascination with the pointillist painter Paul Signac. "She marveled," writes Skibsrud, "over the manner in which the small points of color maintained themselves independently of the image they conveyed, while at the same time they gave themselves up to it entirely."

The character probably likes old Signac because she's a bit of a dab of color herself. As pointillists created "picture" out of dots of color on a canvas, Skibsrud creates "story" out of pieces of images. (One character actually deliberately looks at her surroundings through a pinpoint of view.)

Skibsrud has thoughts and actions take place in pauses, in the space between things—physically, emotionally, intellectually, socially. And, as she is also a poet (Late Nights with Wild Cowboys and I Do Not Think That I Could Love a Human Being), you read these pieces to some degree as you would read poems—you intuit meaning and accept a level of ambiguity.

The distance between a divorced father and his 13-year-old daughter plays out as both physical and emotional space in "The Limit." On an impulse, driving her from the station for a visit to his rural South Dakota place, the father makes the mistake of trying to teach her to drive. Alternately berating himself and attempting to engage her in conversation, the father has to risk bridging the gulf between them. Meanwhile, Skibsrud juxtaposes that with a parallel tale of the father and his father pressing him into danger with an effectively suspenseful tale of a gun and a herd of buffalos.

You don't see desert in this collection by Tucson resident Skibsrud. You see the bleak American prairies and rural Canada (she's been compared to Alice Munro); working-class Maine, France and Japan. These are often through ex-pats' eyes.

In "French Lessons," Skibsrud nails the experience of the foreigner trying to get a handle on the local language. Struggling to ask her employer's permission to buy fruit to accompany their daily baguette-and-cheese fare, the same girl who will later be smitten by Signac begins her appeal "in elliptical sentences that looped back on themselves and ultimately led nowhere. ... Not once did Madame interrupt, or offer anything—some predicate, some verb—into the silences that sometimes ensued. (It was within these silences that Martha seemed almost to live in those days, as though she imagined that the words she did not yet know dwelt there, too, and so there she hunted for them—lucklessly.)"

"Madame" hands dispirited (still hungry) Martha a bowl of plastic fruit.

As in "The Limit," the title story presents and melds more than one generation of family into its action. "This Will Be Difficult to Explain" opens with "an officer, very early in the morning," coming to a door. A dog is shot. A child makes the officer in the backyard "disappear" by blocking him out of his line of vision with his thumb.

Two pages later, you realize that this is neither the narrator's experience nor the story's temporal setting: It's the narrator's father, it's the past; the father is drunk, and the setting is Christmas dinner in March. The narrator is a teenage boy, and the story is about residual effects of Nazi collaboration in World War II. Moving nonchronologically, without signaling, the points of view change between father and son, Skibsrud both tells the family story (Croatian grandfather pressed to work for the SS; father immigrated to Canada, where dreams dissolve in alcohol; son trying to make sense of life) and examines the nature of memory and perspective. ("You drunk bastard," says the narrator's aunt, who was also there, "they shot your uncle, and you say, 'My mother ... shot our little dog.'")

The characters in this collection are looking to make sense of where they find themselves in life. Sometimes they seem to almost catch sight of meaning, or make connections, but then just miss them. At times, though, as in a space between dots, in a moment of clarity, or "moment of being," Skibsrud grants them insight. You see it in the final story, "Fat Man and Little Boy," in which ex-pat Ginny (whom we'd seen in an earlier life, in Paris) is considering making another move, trying to start over again. "She's caught at the exact point of intersection between impossibility and desire."

"Then the impossible thing happens:" writes Skibsrud, "the crosshairs, at that moment, hover and click so that of exactly that one moment she is perfectly certain."

We do not, in fact, know what that is, but we know enough of the character to care that she found it. It's story, in touching impressionism.