Stories by L. Annette Binder, Sarabande Books
Reviewed by Matt Dauphin
Obsession, pain, and longing. These are the elements that indelibly mark L. Annette Binder’s short story collection, Rise. Though it is billed as reworked fairy tales whose characters exist “at the fringes of everyday life,” Rise doesn’t really enter the realm of fairy tale. Actually, approaching the book from such a perspective horribly limits the reader—partly because the stories have so much more to offer. As Sarah Bridgins of The New York Daily News writes, “even the stories without surreal contours seem to be set in a world that is not quite our own.” Binder performs the same twisting we yearn for in fairy tale adaptations, but rather than jerking Little Red into Manhattan (as has been done so many times before), she instead takes the whole of Colorado and throws it into its own pocket dimension of absent parents, missing children, grabby teachers and rotten neighbors. She wracks her characters with guilt and insufficient coping mechanisms so that the world they see—as do we, through their weary eyes—becomes something inherently other to the point that it no longer seems familiar except in its unflinchingly cruel honesty.
Take, for instance, “Nephilim,” the story that opens the book. Freda, a giantess with a tumor on her pituitary gland, lives a life of pain and growth and isolation, marked most profoundly by a surprising friendship with Teddy Fitz, a young neighbor boy, when she is in her late thirties. The love she feels for him grows like her bones, fast and sturdy—and far out of proportion, until it becomes an unbearable tension that refuses to let her ignore it. She watches him mature into the young man she would have liked to have as her own, watches him leave as others leave her life, and watches from behind closed curtains when he returns with a family of his own, still intent on acknowledging the friendship he saw between them. Freda has never stopped growing, but neither have her feelings for Teddy, and she hides both her body and her soul from this manifestation of what her life might otherwise have been. Locked away, waiting for the day when her outsized heart will finally give out from the burden of carrying her outsized body and emotions, Freda’s silent, stoic pain resonates in the reader as clearly as the perpetual creak of her growing bones in the stillness of the night.
Perhaps the most biting element of this story, however, is the fact that Teddy, despite his good looks and “normal” life, is just as bound by pain. “His face was like a mirror,” Binder writes, “and it was better not to look.” Freda fears seeing herself reflected, perhaps not because she fears seeing her own naked pain, but because she cannot bear to see that this perfect person, for whom she has longed in a way that could never be realized, knows all too well what it is to suffer a hurt far too large for his feeble frame.
This is Binder’s power as she walks us through the hardships and sorrows of her characters. Mothers and fathers whose children died or were swept away by faceless crowds and passing years. Children who grew up with the memory of their fathers dying in the room next door, who continue to be haunted by the specter of their own impending deaths. Parents who leave and don’t come back. Missed opportunities, friends who grow apart, teachers who betray their students. And always the snow, always “those dry mountain winds,” always the lack of comfort and stability and peace. There are no breaths of relief in these stories, just “all the people in their muddy shoes, all their tired eyes.” There is only a plodding resiliency with which her characters move through their lives, unable to progress, unable to go back, only capable of maintaining (if they are lucky) a shaky equilibrium amid their unsatisfying lives.
Raymond, in “Halo,” develops an obsession with counting because he believes its magic will keep death from the ones he loves. Blessed (or cursed) with the power to see omens of others’ deaths, he retreats from life into his OCD, crippled by his desire to protect and his unwillingness to accept the limitations of his own power. The inevitability of death haunts Fish in “Nod,” who refuses to sleep as his forty-third birthday draws near, fearing that he, like his father, will die in his sleep. “Galatea” brings us the tortured Carol, whose addiction to plastic surgery is an attempt to halt her body in time, because she is unwilling or unable to move on from the moment when her daughter was taken from her. Frank Muller tends the gardens and fish of his “Shelter” so as not to have to ask his wife if she, too, is haunted by the life their son would have lived, had she not miscarried. Ethan cannot face the waking world after he runs over a young girl with his car, but the hauntingly beautiful dreamscape he visits each night in “Rise” offers him a peace he feels he does not, cannot, deserve. Each story Binder writes locks the reader into a moment of pain that burns enough for a lifetime, with all the sincerity of someone who has realized that all our pain is the same. Only our vanity deludes us into thinking no one else could ever know how badly we feel.
In this way, Rise makes a sorrowful critique of the possibilities of life and the necessity of confronting pain. The inevitability of pain, its omnipresence, its universal feel: these unite her stories, not to depress or defeat the reader, but to acknowledge life’s darkness. This book looks back into the reader, as if to say, “I understand you.” And that truly is like a fairy tale, to think that someone could understand the pain that keeps you up at night, the avoidance that keeps you deep in slumber, or the memories from which you hide.
Binder speaks out through her stories, offering recognition where she cannot offer comfort. It might be “good to have somebody who will listen even if they don’t understand,” as Binder’s narrative voice reminds us, but she offers us one better through her refreshingly honest reflection of our supposedly secret pains.
If my response makes the book sound bleak at times, I can only point to the rawness of emotion, which has been laid bare by reading this collection. Rise will leave you fragile and vulnerable to your own insecurities, while at the same time raging at the inadequacy of everything, of life. Yet, coming down from this high, you might begin to realize that Rise has taken nothing from you to leave you so weak, but only forced you to consider how meaningless your defenses against these emotions already were and how astonishing it can be to experience them without filters. Binder’s characters experience their pain so that we can learn to recognize our own and, if we are lucky, make something more of it.
L. Annette Binderis the author of Rise, her first collection of short stories. Her work has appeared in numerous literary publications, such as The Pushcart Prize XXXVI, The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories, One Story, American Short Fiction, The Southern Review, Third Coast, Fairy Tale Review, Bellingham Review, and Beloit Fiction Journal. She is a graduate of the Programs in Writingat the University of California, Irvine. http://www.lannettebinder.com/
Matt Dauphin is a doctoral student in English literature at Florida State University. His work investigates post-war American speculative fiction, gender and sexuality, and the performance of identity in popular culture.