Meter-Wide Button by Lillian Paige Walton
*This isn't an art book (I guess Mercury Retrograde wasn't either...), but the author requested I review the book and very kindly provided me with an advance copy so I was happy to oblige.*
Meter-Wide Button is a series of nine short fictions, mostly in a vignette style where a scene is set up and briefly put in motion before dissolving. The settings have a weight of imagery as if they are being sculpted rather than described, the process of description and spatial arrangement acting as an end in itself rather than as an architecture for narrative. In part that's simply the nature of short stories, but the handling of setting feels considered like a good poem where every word is in its proper place. There's a recurrent theme of mild neurosis in the characters that seems to be related to this precision, not exactly OCD but high-maintenance, a need for order in personal space and a sensitivity to the imperfections that can easily upend that fragile placidity.
"Residency" most neatly explores this psychology: an author who's recently quit her job to work on her first novel describes her tightly scheduled writing routine and, immediately after conveying the satisfaction of her hard work, is rendered paralyzed by a broken air conditioner and the ensuing encroachment of sweat and street noise. There is something unfortunate about the broad tendency of fiction writers to default to writing about fiction writers, but one always writes what they know whether they intend to or not so it's probably unavoidable. At any rate it's better than the dominant trend of autofiction that confuses the oversharing of personal details about oneself for profundity. But a scene is not moving because it actually happened, it's moving because it's well-written and conveys feeling through the words. Walton creates a response here by setting up the delicate harmony of environment and mind before pulling a bait-and-switch that drops them into the fraying nerves of a ruined day, and it's stressful. A story of a productive day of work would quickly get banal and a portrait of pure stress would likely feel forced, but put together it becomes an exercise in effective storytelling.
Unlike "Residency," the through line of all but one of the other stories is a light magical realism, something that is dangerous territory, at least to my tastes, but they avoid crossing over from imaginative into idle daydreaming by remaining more interested in the characters than their environment. A dentist finds something strange in his distressingly calm patient's mouth, a woman hallucinates while taking a bath, someone screams for 31 minutes, a man takes a job at a school where kindergarteners learn paper-making and horticulture in French, an arts residency on a foreign planet, each works as an entertaining frame. The only exception is "No Spoon", a story from the perspective of a formerly polyamorous, unnamed and ungendered character with a kleptomaniac eating disorder. The world described is nearly equivalent to reality except for details like the unrealistic names of businesses and an odd, fleeting scene of a man wrapped in blankets laying on the floor of a grocery store who ascends to heaven. The issue lies not the details in themselves but that they're too sparsely employed to conjure their own coherence. I imagined the story taking place in Bushwick, and though the use of proper nouns and divine intervention implied that I should imagine otherwise, I wasn't given enough information to do so. The narrator's relationship to food, their polycule, and service workers fared better than the setting, but there too the narrative feels less pointed than the other stories, like there was a half-finished idea that instigated the piece and never quite got fleshed out. The title story too I had a bit of an issue with, the outer space residency, but I'm not much of a fan of science fiction. The story is mainly focused on the artist and their romance with the residency security guard, which is for the most part not elevated by the setting. Placing an interpersonal relationship in outer space is flattening because space is inhospitable and barren, there's no society to interact with to complicate the story. It necessarily becomes a situation of two people existing in a vacuum. Well, there are some others outside of the relationship, but the moments that stuck with me are the artist being propositioned by the residency director and someone calling the artist's paintings trite, which is to say what I liked could have just as easily happened in a story about a regular arts residency. But like I said, I just don't like science fiction, I wouldn't fault the story on a technical level.
Easily my favorite story was "Real Teacher," to the point that I was a bit heartbroken when it ended. That melancholy desire for a story to continue infinitely is something I remember from when I was young but only rarely as an adult, and my feeling here speaks to the scope of what the short story sets up before cutting off. Like Kafka's "The Stoker," it reads as a first chapter of a novel. The setting itself, an eccentric private grade school, is pleasant, and the children's names (Xtopher, Jingle, Cobb-Ann) as well as the strange teaching subjects (Latin, picking up a basket of eggs) are quietly utopian. Those details are simply the window-dressing, though, as what's much more important is the fullness of the world. Not at all a vignette, the characters feel like real people who are begging to continue interacting with each other. There's a sense each one has a real life continuing outside the bounds of the story, a very difficult quality to capture in short fiction. Usually a character in a short story plays a type, or a presumed stand-in for the author, or stays simply undefined. Here each person the narrator meets feels like an introduction, in part because the narrator spends most of the story meeting his new coworkers, but more so because they are described evocatively enough that they become distinct without serving a clear purpose. A short story, by definition an economical form, is usually self-contained and therefore only deals with what is necessary towards achieving its finite end. This is much easier than a novel because a simple idea can easily sprawl out into a couple dozen pages without worrying about characterization, whereas a few hundred requires an engine of narrative to be set into motion and followed through on its own internal logic, which takes a complex ground like the development of relationships between distinct personalities. Every named character in "Real Teacher" was established with enough complexity that I wanted to find out more about them. It may seem as though I'm being critical of the story for setting up a novel's world in a short story's space, but I'm simply impressed that so much was established so quickly and compellingly. As a whole I found Meter-Wide Button to be a very promising debut, and I'm excited to follow her next project, especially if it's longer and doubly so if "Real Teacher" gets expanded on and Daniel finally gets that drink with the Driver.