REVIEW: HERE COMES ANOTHER LESSON by Stephen O’Connor
Stephen O’Connor’s Here Comes Another Lesson offers a rare virtue among short story collections: if one story isn’t what you’re looking for, chances are the next one will be. The sheer variety of narratives offered in this collection is virtuosic. O’Connor writes from such a multiplicity of voices and with such a wide spectrum of concerns, running the gamut from a Minotaur awakening to his own angst to an actor playing himself in a movie based on his life to a graduate student struggling to finish her thesis in a disturbingly isolated house, that considering the collection as a whole becomes a rather dizzying task.
The recurring centerpieces of Here Comes Another Lesson are the adventures of Charles, an untenured Professor of Atheism. In each of the five stories devoted to him, Charles is ruthlessly thrown into a theological scenario that implicitly refutes everything Charles’s world view is based upon; the hopeless unbeliever takes a vacation to Eden and is visited by God and angels. Pretty clever gimmick, right? And in lesser hands, that is exactly what these stories would be: a gimmick. But what O’Connor does with the Professor of Atheism stories is much more complex and satisfying, the humor dark and twisted. What Charles eventually learns every time is not that he is wrong, but that, in a way, he is right. If God truly exists in this world, Charles discovers, then we are probably worse off for it. What could have been a series of casually cruel set pieces instead become the trials of a man grappling with an impossible ideal.
This unpredictability is true of most of the collection; O’Connor consistently zigs when you think he’s going to zag. Take “Disappearance and” for example, where an ornithologist learns the exact moment his death is going to occur. From the opening, where a soothsaying cormorant touches down on a plastic tablecloth, you could be forgiven for expecting the story that follows to be clever, to follow some path to self-defeat and irony, to end with the ornithologist’s death as some sort of punch line. Instead, what O’Connor eventually delivers is a quiet, lyrical meditation on a man struggling to be alert to his life during his final moments on earth.
O’Connor’s eventual purpose in these stories somewhere between the realist and the fantastic. At his most imaginative, O’Connor still manages to pull his fantastic creations back into a more recognizable emotional landscape. “I Think I’m Happier,” where a man is followed home by his dead father, is reminiscent of Donald Barthelme in both absurdity and tone, but O’Connor is softer than Barthelme, tender where Barthelme often relied on artifice. The result is both harrowing and touching. And at his most naturalistic, O’Connor can’t help but veer into the horrific, the odd and the unbelievable. “White Fire,” told from the perspective of a soldier fresh from Iraq, skirts around the war for as long as it can, the soldier using “like” and “you know” to avoid actually saying what needs to be said. But the flat, clipped conversational prose only continues to grow in resonance and weight until, hopelessly pulled by memory, the soldier finally reveals the horrors he’s seen. And once it’s been said, you wish it could be unsaid again. Not for your sake, but for his. And in “He Will Not Seeing Me Stopping Here,” a dinner between two old friends borders on a Lynchian nightmare without ever abandoning its realistic conceit. O’Connor seems to take just as much joy in revealing the peculiar quietness in the ordinary as he does in humanizing the strangest realms of his imagination.
Here Comes Another Lesson is a collection of people lost amidst a world stripped of meaning and purpose. Whether that world resembles our own or merely mirrors it, O’Connor manages to find the beauty, the brutality, and the sublime buried within and offers it all to his reader, unflinchingly.