THE GLASS HOUSE is Laura Furman's first collection of stories. The title refers to a model house of exquisite delicacy, but it is also an appropriate symbol for the stories themselves. Furman's prose, clear as glass, gives the reader an unobstructed view of her characters as they go about the daily business of their lives. She is a writer of great tact and discretion, a disciplined observer with an eye for the detail that brings into sharp focus the most subtle feelings.
Her characters are intelligent people who have learned, in most cases, to "suffer" their losses. The verb cuts both ways; they endure their losses, but they are also pained by them. The characters who emerge most admirably in the stories -- there are five stories and a novella in this volume -- are the stoical, sensible young women who lose husbands, lovers, or parents and yet manage to stay upright on their own two feet and to walk forward on them. These women are often identified by the houses they live in, which they've decorated or renovated themselves -- but they live alone, and they must warm their own hearths. Contemporary as they are, they have not lost the instinct for permanence.
The women have their houses, the men have their cars -- these unassuming stories sometimes depend too heavily upon their symbols. They have to, for the characters aren't quite large enough to fill the space Furman allots them. tThese characters have the good taste not to impose on one another, not to make too many demands, not to make scenes. Their passions are restrained -- but a passion that is neutralized by good taste isn't much of a passion. People who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones, as Furman reminds us, and her characters don't. Neither does she, not in this collection. But she is resourceful, discriminating writer, and her glass house may prove to be only a miniature, a model for the more substantial edifice that she will construct in books to come.
Nothing is quite so vivid or real to Richard Stern's characters as the effusive activity of their own minds. The narrator of "Packages," the title story of the collection, returns to New York for his mother's cremation and throws her ashes out with the trash. Having done this filial duty, he makes himself comfortable in a friend's apartment:
"I activate air conditioners and sound system and pick out some correct music. A cello suite of Poppa Bach. Naked on the leather couch, I listen until it overflows my capacity. You need weeks for such a piece. It should take as long to listen to as it did to compose. Or is the idea to reduce vastness into something portable?
He then thinks of Planck's constant, a marve, "Nature's own package"; he recalls the composition of a letter, never mailed, in which he thanks his mother for teaching him to take pleasure in the sight of women's bodies and confesses that he has at times wished for her death; he meets with his senile father; he thinks of Proust and of the piano music of Ravel, which "detonates the world's pathos"; after his father's death, he dreams of a George Herbert poem and realizes that he is at last free of his parents; he makes his farewell to his mother as the garbage man heaves the package, which contains not only ashes but rinds and fishbones, into the truck.
An unwritten letter, a poem remembered in a dream, the memory of a fragment of Proust -- most of this story takes place inside the narrator's head. The narrator's mind is the setting for this story, and this narrator -- brainy, middleaged, learned -- closely resembles the main character in several other stories in the collection. They all seek to distill experience, to make it into "something portable . . . a package."
Stern is the author of seven novels, including Natural Shocks , the story of a journalist who sets out to write an article on Death and becomes an intimate friend of a dying young woman. The novel is moving because the abstraction, Death, gives way to a particular death. In packages , the current flows in the other direction, from the particular to the abstract.
These stories aren't really stories at all but spiels, far-ranging meditations delivered in an urgent, driving voice. Stern is "mad for his own spiels and his own learning," as he says of one of his characters, and his allusive prose is laced with puns, arcana, epigrams. His big-time thinkers and talkers are classy performers, celebrants of their won consciousness, Cartesians with a vengeance.
Ella Leffland is an elusive writer. The stories is Last Courtesies are enormously varied. There subjects include an elderly homosexual couple; a Japanese sea captain making his final voyage; a young child farmed out to his aunt and dying uncle in a village in the far north of Denmark; a grubby, fulminating, wonderful Russian emigre and a paranoid young woman who believes that everyone stares at her.
They are all written in a prose style that is formal to the point of severity. Leffland, the author of Rumors of Peace , is able to create sympathetic characters, but with very few exceptions the characters in these 14 stories are treated with a detachment that is the only bulwark against disgust.
One type of character recurs in many of the stories. He or she is usually poor, fierce, truculent and intransigent. The keepers of a Viennese pension -- she is "gross-featured" and he is in a "premature riun"; their children "looked curiously prosperous, but not quite human . . . very close to some thriving vegetable matter" -- are representatives of the type. They produce a guilty sickness in a young woman who stays in one of their rooms, a room that gives off "a smell of sweat, urine, canned food, and cheap cigarettes." The young woman lets herself become filthy, and to tempt her keepers, who have not acknowledged the tips she leaves under her plate, she changes her money and builds fantastic castles of coins in her room.
The severity of Leffland's style makes the strangeness and horror of this story seem perfectly inevitable. Its themes and techniques are repeated in other stories -- the guilt of the traveler, the fascination with the Other, a narrative detachment that forces the reader to make his own anxious judgements about the events placed before him. The stories in Last Courtesies have the dread power of nightmares.