TIMES LIKE THESE: Stories
By Rachel Ingalls
Graywolf. 316 pp. Paperback, $16
There are some writers who, you feel, should be universally famous and who, mystifyingly, are not. Fellow writers and loyal fans read Rachel Ingalls's sly, inventive, intelligent work with enormous admiration and complain about the gaps in time that separate the publication of her books, at least in this country. (Born here, Ingalls lives and writes in London.) Only one of her novels, Mrs. Caliban, the story of a forlorn housewife whose lonely life is brightened by visitations from a sort of monster, achieved popular success here, while the others (most notably, the marvelous Binstead's Safari) seem like secrets passed from one devoted reader to another.
Her new story collection, Times Like These, at once raises your hopes that this regrettable situation will be remedied and reminds you of the possible explanations for why this might not occur. While so many readers demand that characters be sympathetic, that plots be morally uplifting, that endings be redemptive and that escapist fiction open a portal into a world brighter than our own, Ingalls's work could hardly be darker. Though her stories often contain fanciful or supernatural elements, they are grounded, even mired, in very complex and difficult human realities: warfare, betrayal, deception, unhappy marriages and anxious alliances based on fear and mistrust.
You tear through Ingalls's stories with a more-than-willing suspension of disbelief, less interested in matters of plausibility and verisimilitude than in the seductions of pure narrative. Filled with surprising plot twists, guided by the frequent interventions of the deus ex machina that arises from the author's imagination, they keep us steadily turning the pages. And the chance that the dramatic arc may precipitously veer toward the supernatural -- the possibility that anything can happen -- makes them all the more intriguing. In one story, "Somewhere Else," a married couple, both travel agents, accept a bargain vacation offer that seems (and is) too good to be true and find themselves (as we could have predicted) trapped in an endless voyage from hell. In another tale, "The Icon," a man's obsession with a Greek painting that his grandfather may or may not have stolen (a theft that has cursed its original owners with generations of bad luck) leads to violence and tragedy.
Several of the stronger stories remain rooted in a more recognizable reality even as they explore the ways in which a character's fascination with the romantic and the uncanny can exert a powerful and inexplicable effect on so-called ordinary life. Married to a superstitious journalist in a story called "Correspondent," a jealous wife decides to test the efficacy of her husband's talismanic charms. In another story, "Last Act: The Madhouse," a young man obsessed with the high drama and poetry of Italian opera finds his own love life mimicking the sort of production in which a coloratura soprano winds up in a madhouse. "The traditions of stage madness demanded that the more crazed a girl became, the higher she sang," Ingalls writes. "Purity of tone would indicate the intensity of her love and pain. Another custom governed the color of her dress: it had to be white, and of a simple, shiftlike design. You were supposed to think it was her nightgown, and that she'd be too distracted to want to change her clothes, or perhaps to remember how to. Occasionally the nightdress resembled some sort of tattered bridal garment she'd put on under the impression that the hero would call for her in just a minute, to take her to church and make her his wife."
In "Veterans," one of collection's best and most fully developed stories, a disturbed war veteran arrives to upset the domestic contentment of a man who saved his life in battle. You can't help noting the resemblance between this story's sinister interloper and so many of Patricia Highsmith's sociopaths. And you can't help hoping that Ingalls, like Highsmith -- who, for a long time, was celebrated in Europe but relatively unknown in this country -- will at last receive the popularity and recognition that she deserves. *
Francine Prose's "Caravaggio: Painter of Miracles" has just been published.