Mothers by Chris Power

Mothers: Stories BY Chris Power. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Hardcover, 304 pages. $26.
The cover of Mothers: Stories

The fiction writer who is also a critic is cursed with the predicament of having strewn about the very tools for his own dismemberment. Hold up the analytic knives to a purely creative output, and the fruits of artistic labor too readily slacken and yield. Susan Sontag has often been castigated for writing novels that fail to meet her own exacting critical standards, but author-critics such as Edmund White, Lionel Trilling, Iris Murdoch, A. S. Byatt, and, more recently, James Wood have also been the subject of this particular jibe. How then, to court success when the stakes of one’s own making become impossibly high?

For the past decade and counting, Chris Power has demonstrated an acuity for parsing the nuances of the short story—which according to Power himself, climaxed with Chekhov, that master of “not knowing”—in a regular column for The Guardian. As a critic, Power’s models, in addition to Chekhov, have included Mavis Gallant, Franz Kafka, and Samuel Beckett. Writing of the shorter fiction of the Brazilian author Machado de Assis, whom Power admires for his stylized evocation of memory and cast of characters in search of their pasts, Power writes approvingly of the stories as constituting “not a way of interpreting the world, but the world entire.”

Power’s debut collection of short stories, Mothers, is his own attempt to capture the world entire. The ten stories that make up this collection traverse Greek islands, English moors, Scandinavian farmhouses, and Mexican beaches. His characters are cosmopolitans who freelance, vacation, and otherwise peregrinate the globe listlessly, their constant motion all in effort to escape the clawing loneliness of their respective psyches. Their isolation is exacerbated by reticence—their unwillingness and often, their inability—to communicate the degree to which they are burdened by the weight of their pasts. More often than not, Power’s characters are also unable to foresee the impacts of their actions. Instead of looking ahead, they yearn for the individual moments in their lives to mean something, a quality that makes them lovingly human.

In “Above the Wedding,” the most evocative story in the collection, Liam chases the initial thrill from an affair with the boyfriend of a female acquaintance. Describing their sexual encounter, Liam is besotted by how the “pain of it, excruciating at first, was swallowed by something larger: a numbness that grew into a boiling joy.” Thwarted by circumstance—the couple is getting married—Liam numbs himself by getting drunk in night air that “felt like a substance” and “gathered itself in buzzing shapes.” In his drunken stupor he rests and looks at the sky above him, “a shattered pane of glass”; the moon, “a severed head.” The rich descriptions of Liam’s surroundings put his misery into relief, plotting him against a background of churning fate over which he has no control. Power’s episodic depiction of Liam’s affair, from its initial inception following “a lot of drink and some cocaine” in London, to a second meeting at a birthday party in Berlin, and finally, to Liam’s complete loss of control at the wedding in Mexico, underscores the difficulty of thinking of life as a continuous narrative. “Nothing will happen,” Liam tells himself. “Something will happen.” Little surprise, then, that Liam is a writer, halfheartedly working on a novel.

With less precision, another author might have rendered a character like Liam simply pathetic; instead, Power manages to convey in “Above the Wedding” the universality of a certain ache, of simply not knowing which experiences, which people, will hold weight in the future. His characters’ inability to articulate their psychic pain echoes the dull pang of recognizing that it is impossible to fully distill from life the import of its small moments. They’re not passive, waiting around for life to happen to them; rather, they each struggle to assign appropriate weight to the individual moments that make up a life.

And memory’s faultiness only furthers meaning’s elusiveness, its latency. In “The Colossus of Rhodes,” a father on vacation with his daughters in Cephalonia recalls his last trip to Greece, as a child with his parents and siblings. Alternating between these two timelines, the story illuminates Power’s psychoanalytic concerns: As a child, the protagonist was groped by an older man while playing in an arcade unsupervised; shortly thereafter, he crushed a kitten’s skull with his foot. Years later, looking at his daughter tanning in the sun, he assures himself that when they return home, “her skin will peel, revealing the next layer, and before long she—we—won’t even remember the pain she suffered.” Lest we write off Power as tempted by the pat facility of metaphor, he injects a dose of authorial self-reflexivity: He knows his story “would have been more dramatic” had his assailant “started masturbating . . . like the tramp in the Joyce story,” but that didn’t happen. Neither, we learn, did he actually crush the kitten with his foot—he witnessed a group of others committing the violence, but as he asks pointedly, “What’s anyone meant to do with a story like that?” Power succeeds in describing the impulse to rely on narrative as a reconciliatory salve at the same time as he conveys its difficulty. The fear that telling one’s story won’t redeem one’s past runs through the whole of the collection; it silences characters, leading them to internalize and brood over their perceived failures.

Mothers takes its name and its form from three stories that follow Eva, whom we encounter first as a child in the opening story “Summer 1976,” then as an itinerant young woman in “Innsbruck,” and finally as a wife and mother in her eponymous last story. In each of these stories, mothers function as ciphers, vessels through which the past gurgles and beckons. In “Summer 1976,” Eva recounts a period of time in her childhood shortly before her mother died of cancer. Following the death of her husband, Eva’s mother remarried and moved the family to a small gated community outside the city. For Eva, at eleven, the pristine estate is a microcosm of the world’s cruelties and pleasures, where she observes her parents’ elaborate parties with the portentous knowledge that this world of adults “never really existed the way you imagined it to.” Nor can Eva articulate any sympathy for her mother’s grief. In her mind, her mother’s vulnerability was so unprecedented that any attempt to soothe her would have fallen short.

As an adult, Eva carries this reticence with her like a weapon. Armed too with the talismanic power of her mother’s tattered and outdated atlas, in “Innsbruck” Eva finds herself shunting across Europe unaccompanied, but encumbered by her past. Like Rachel Cusk’s peripatetic Faye, Eva comes into focus through the intervention of minor characters; unlike Faye, however, Eva cannot lend an ear to their stories, so engulfed is she by her own memories. The final story in the collection is narrated from the perspective of Eva’s husband Joe, who despite his efforts, cannot heal Eva’s psychic wounds or stop her from running away, periodically leaving Joe to care for their young daughter Marie in her attempts to find solid ground. Eva occasionally sends a postcard from wherever she is in the world; it’s through this epistolary relationship that Marie forms a bond with her. At one point during Marie’s teen years, Eva decides to settle down a few hours away from the father-daughter pairing. Joe cautiously agrees to let Eva spend time with Marie. “She’s a really good storyteller, Dad,” Marie insists, when a jealous Joe interrogates her about her relationship with her mother.

Naturally. And why shouldn’t she be? What inheritance could a woman, traumatized and alienated at a young age, offer beyond the ability to reconfigure the world and present it in a more palatable manner, presumably the same tool for survival that has kept her afloat? Eva’s rootlessness is the most obvious coping mechanism against the vicissitudes of life, but it’s far from the most effective, and whether it’s the most rational is far beyond the point. Yet, her insistence on narrating life on her own terms, and her desire for her progeny to listen to this story, reveals an affecting truth, that protection cannot be offered without some form of sacrifice.

Jacqueline Rose, in her essay Mothers: An Essay on Love and Cruelty, reminds us that mothers are expected not only to look to the future, but to assuage the ills of the past. Their function within society is contingent on their unyielding resilience. “I think of the way mothers are expected to lock any feelings of despair behind closed doors, especially in those first precarious moments of a mothering life,” writes Rose. “Perhaps what goes by the name of ‘postnatal depression’ is a way of registering griefs past, present, and to come, an affront to the ideal not least because of the unbearable weight of historical memory and/or prescience it carries.” Rose asserts that the most intolerable demand made of mothers is an expectation that they, through the sacrifice of their political subjectivity, “lift us out of historical time.” Chris Power’s stories suggest that the narrative mode, here so often ventriloquized through the figure of the mother, is subject to this very same expectation, and more often than not, fails to meet such an impossible demand. Positioning narrative as cipher, as trigger, or as source—the roles assigned to mothers in modern society—leaves Power, the fiction writer, ambivalent about its psychoanalytical efficacy. Perhaps that’s a task left for the critics.

Tausif Noor is a writer living outside of New York.