REVIEW: Orientation by Daniel Orozco

Orientation

by Daniel Orozco

Faber & Faber

176 pp/$23

“Orientation” by Daniel Orozco is a short story so good it was published and anthologized a full decade before headlining its author’s debut collection.

But I had never heard of the story, last year, when my creative writing class and I decided to read it aloud together. There was no way I could’ve known how good it would be — the kind of good that makes you giddy, the kind of good that reminds you what fiction is capable of in the hands of an author who’s tuned to the crackpot voices in his head but is also able to fine-tune and tame those voices — the kind of author, who, like you, detects the teeming schizo wavelengths humming under every civilized effort to control ourselves, to behave, to be sensible.

Innocuously enough, the story begins: “Those are the offices and these are the cubicles. That’s my cubicle there, and this is your cubicle. This is your phone. Never answer your phone. Let the Voicemail System answer it.” It’s more or less the kind of thing you would expect from an office orientation. But less than a page later, cracks appear in the surface of Orozco’s cubicle-crammed reality: Ask too many questions and you may be let go. Receptionists always leave. John LaFountaine from time to time “accidentally” uses the women’s restroom. Russell Nash is in love with Amanda Pierce… And as the orientation continues, cracks widen into fissures: we learn of Amanda Pierce’s husband, a lawyer who “subjects her to an escalating array of painful and humiliating sex games, to which Amanda Pierce reluctantly submits. She comes to work exhausted and freshly wounded each morning, wincing from the abrasions on her breasts, or the bruises on her abdomen, or the second-degree burns on the backs of her thighs.”

At this point my class and I, taking turns reading the story, begin to split into two camps: those who get it, and those who do not. I am in the prior camp. I get it. My throat constricts with suppressed laughter when I try to make it through a passage about a quarterly meeting during which Anika Bloom’s left palm begins to bleed, causing her to go into a trance and predict how and when Barry Hacker’s wife will die:

“We laughed it off. She was, after all, a new employee. But Barry Hacker’s wife is dead. So unless you want to know exactly when and how you’ll die, never talk to Anika Bloom.”

It gets weirder from there.

Anyone with a taste for the absurd will find Orozco’s deadpan Kafka-cum-Barthelme short-circuiting of reality hard to resist. Nonetheless, Orozco doesn’t seem like the kind of guy to experiment merely for experiment’s sake. Like the best artists, he is concerned more with ends than means. If his ends demand unconventional means, he’ll use them; he’ll write a story from a police blotter’s point of view if he has to.

Or he’ll use multiple character perspectives to tease out unexpected associations, as he does in “Only Connect,” a story whose title defies you to tie together three loosely connected narrative threads, its three characters wrapped in what, by story’s end, turns out to be one very tight knot. Following three characters brought together by a murder at gunpoint, the story charts the emotional reverberations of the shooting’s prelude and aftermath as viewed through the lives of the murderers, the murdered, and the hapless bystander. Like the collection’s title reminds us, every story is contingent on its point of view, its orientation.

But the real magic isn’t Orozco’s surprising story structure. Rather, it’s his ability to convince us that these characters exist, that they are just like us, and that if we could dip from consciousness to consciousness to view each one from the inside — the way a god’s eye might in one quick flash behold an entire life in an instant — then we might know better than to fume over a botched office romance, or pull a trigger and kill a man for no good reason, or spend a life grieving over some sad thing we wish we had never seen.

Again Orozco uses the multiple-perspective technique in “Somoza’s Dream,” perhaps the collection’s most memorable story, wherein an exiled dictator dwelling in a tiny Latin American country meets his demise in a glorious fireball from a rocket-propelled grenade. The description of the Presidente-in-Exile’s death is a passage so gruesome it demands to be savored:

The newspaper in his hands disappears, goes poof! like a magician’s trick. His hands smoke and glow and burst into flames. The suit he is wearing vaporizes. His eyeballs explode, and his mouth fills with gasoline. The backseat of the Mercedes becomes an arena of transformation, the effulgent white-hot heart of a flame brighter than a hundred suns, a whirlpool of shrapnel and fire taking its passenger apart. Hands — gone! Yet there is the glide of silk on the fingertips. Eyes — no more! Yet before them hang the pale breasts of a first love, a girl from Stony Point, New York, named Amanda. The slide of gasoline on the tongue gives way to the textures of pulque, milky and sweet. There is the smell of Cohibas, of Tres Flores brilliantine. The scrape of a father’s beard against skin, the slap of breakers on a shore like the beating of a giant’s heart. The tug of an erection. Strokes and caresses. A pressing upon the chest like the vise grips of God…. amid the random firing of synapses in a brain poaching inside its own skull, what is revealed and understood of a life in its last instant — as the Presidente-in-Exile looks up from his paper and mutters “Fuck me” when his driver’s head disappears — what is understood is simply this: the transformative power of weaponry and surprise.

A condensed masterpiece of succulent descriptions, “Zamora’s Dream” is much more than a vehicle for the author’s grotesque but beautiful word arrangements; by collapsing chronology and exchanging points of view even more impressively than he does in other stories, Orozco kindles the doomed tinder of causality and invites us to follow the flame’s dance towards inevitable destruction.

If there’s a weak moment in Orientation, it’s the author’s one (and only) attempt to buckle down and write a straightforward single-character short story, sans experimental bells and whistles. “Temporary Stories,” placed near the end of the collection where it mirrors the title story’s office backdrop like a Bizarro World version of “Orientation,” does an adequate job of portraying a temp worker’s impotent frustration with corporate powers beyond her control, but never quite rises to the level of the other stories. Experimentation, it seems, is a necessary catalyst for Orozco’s inspiration.

Which gets us to “Officer’s Weep,” the aforementioned story in which a series of police reports accumulate into an irreverent but poignant species of a love story. It’s a technique so suited to the form that it makes you wonder why someone hadn’t done it before.

But while reading the increasingly strange accounts of the two officers — one male, one female, one single, one married — tentatively falling in love with each other, it becomes obvious that no one else could have pulled the concept off like Orozco. For one thing, it’s funny. Very funny. Echoing some of the silly absurdity of “Orientation,” “Officer’s Weep” features a subplot about a stolen chainsaw called DADDY’S SWEET BITCH that ends up in the hands of a wood and wicker-hating vandal at large. Along the way, police reports turn more and more intimate:

3600 Block, Sunnyside Drive. Vandalism. Handball courts in Phoenix Park defaced. Spray-paint graffiti depicts intimate congress between a male and female…. Officers gape. Minutes pass in slack-jawed silence, until officer [Shield #647] ascertains incipient boner. Officer horrified, desperately reroutes train of thought, briskly repositions baton. Second officer [Shield #325] takes down Scene Report, feigns unawareness of her partner’s tumescent plight, ponders the small blessings of womanhood.

Even if the story doesn’t quite take us to the Tolstoy-deep extremes of human longing, it wryly reminds us how silly we look when we take ourselves too seriously and forget to laugh at the lonely human animal, horny and yearning, hiding behind the sunglasses and the starched blue uniform and the badge.

An equally ambitious tour de force is Orientation’s parting shot, “Shakers.” In this blow-by-blow panorama of an earthquake as it rocks and rolls its way through many people’s lives, leaving some scarred, some dead, some forever changed, Orozco lifts us once again to transcendence. P-waves, S-waves, and L-waves rumble up from the substrata, and what we expect to feel earthbound and solemn feels, in this author’s hands, sky-high and flying. Rats, snakes, cockroaches, ants, and cows bolt for safety. “Crows go mute. Squirrels play possum” as seismic waves roll across a California landscape and fling a BellSouth lineman to his death, vibrate up the shinbones of a stoned teenage boy playing Grand Theft Auto, blow out the windows of a grocery store and rattle its contents to the floor, shake the mortar off the ceiling of Folsom Prison, and unnerve a man out of doing whatever it was he was going to do the young hitchhiker he’d picked up off the I-205.

The collection leaves us with this startling final image: a day hiker trapped in the bottom of a ravine, submerged in dust, his ankle broken, his mouth filled with sand, his life suddenly and undeniably at nature’s mercy. He clings to nothing more than hope. But as the sun begins to set and hope begins to fade, a strange thing happens. A diamondback rattlesnake slides up between the hiker’s legs and coils itself against his groin, the serpent’s tail “draped along his belly with the offhand intimacy of a lover’s arm.” Man and reptile couple strangely in destruction’s wake.

At last the author has taken us as far from the office as he can. Civilization’s smooth surface has been stripped away, the natural world laid bare. Look, he seems to say to us. Look! Out here it is even stranger!

–Joshua Hardina lives and teaches in Southern California and is currently at work on a novel titled Who Makes You Mine.

Listen to Daniel Orozco read from Orientation here.

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