In all chaos there is a cosmos, in all disorder a secret order – Carl Jung
No, I’ve not started reviewing textbooks. Yes, I know it looks like a textbook but believe me it is not. It is actually a collection of thirteen stories by the American author Brent Robison. The first I knew about this book was a glowing review by Cheryl Anne Gardner. She was offering a copy of the book as a prize in a draw which I entered but didn’t win and had totally forgotten about the book when I ran into Brent myself; the Internet really is like that Parisian café where, if you sit still long enough, the whole world will eventually pass by you.
One of the problems I find with short stories is that you spend ten or twenty pages getting to know a particular set of characters and then – abruptly – it’s over and you’ve got a whole new set of characters to try and warm to. That can be a bit tiresome. I think that’s why a lot of children’s books work so well because each individual chapter is a self-contained story and yet, viewed as a whole, what you have is a novel. The Principle of Ultimate Indivisibility is not a novel-in-short-stories but characters do reappear in other stories and I find I like this form of fiction; The Butterfly Collector which I reviewed a few weeks back was like this.
The book’s title is taken from the opening story, ‘Family Man,’ in which we get a portrait of Harold the bewildered main character who can’t fathom why he feels such relief when he leaves his suburban home on weekday mornings and does everything he can to fend off threats to his self-concept as a man with a forever indivisible family, even as his life crumbles about him. At one point he says:
I believe in the principle of ultimate indivisibility. I am a family man.
as if the simple existence of his family was all he needed to prove the principle of ultimate indivisibility. But what exactly is the principle of ultimate indivisibility? I asked Brent who drew my attention to something Jason Stern said in the January 2009 issue of Chronogram:
The fact is that there is a present emergency that might drive humanity to recognize our inherent oneness, if we can feel it. It is not terrorists or the scary economy, global warming or global war, or even our personal plights. These are only symptoms and results of the real emergency, which is our alienation from that which matters. What matters is the consciousness of inherent unity, and the strength of being to make that consciousness real in our world.
In Harold's mind, it's connected to his fantasy that his family cannot be divided, which of course is very unself-aware on his part.
I used that phrase for the title because the subtle thread that holds the whole collection together is the knowledge that we humans, following our unique storylines that feel so separate, are nevertheless all cells in one vast body, interconnected in all directions by visible and invisible lines of energy. Without that vision driving me, I doubt I ever would have finished the stories and assembled them into a book.
which is why “web of stories” is a better description of this book than simply ‘collection.’
I said that there were thirteen stories in this “web or stories” but that’s not strictly true because some of the stories are in more than one part. Let’s take the second story, ‘Phoenix Egg’ which is subtitled ‘Three Vignettes’, as an example. The vignettes are entitled: ‘Cabin’, ‘Storm’ and ‘Morning’ but, like the yellow Rolls Royce in the film of the same name, the only constant in each is a piece of jewellery made by a Navajo jeweller who has come to New York to try and make a go of things in the big city; we learn his story in the middle section. Framing this we learn the fate of the piece, a cop called Tony had fished it out of some landfill debris that he and “some 499 other NYPD, FBI, and other civilian workers” were raking through. We also learn why he’s alone in “a tiny cabin deep in the Catskills.” The third vignette presents us with Helen, a junior broker, married to Daniel, a novelist who had gifted his wife the ovoid object as a fifth anniversary present. It’s an interesting way of presenting a story – an ending, beginning then middle – but it works. Each of the stories is about a couple in a different stage of their relationship: Tony’s wife has asked him for a divorce “citing something she called ‘patrol car widowhood’; the Navajo’s wife has followed her husband to the city and tried to help him support them by waiting tables and producing paintings no one will buy; Helen and Daniel are drifting apart – his novel is growing but nothing is growing inside her other than resentment – but things might be about to change there. How the Phoenix Egg finds its way from Chelsea to Arden Heights is never stated explicitly – that’s where readers get to use their imaginations – but I have to confess to completely missing the connection on first read. Just pay attention to the last 10 lines of the story.
You can read both ‘The Phoenix Egg’ and ‘Family Man’ online here.
Harold reappears towards the end of the book in the story ‘A Partial Catalogue of Harold’s Major and Minor Epiphanies.’ This is effectively an assemblage of flash pieces that build up to provide a much more rounded picture of the man we met at the start of the book, his life falling to pieces. The most striking piece for me was this:
Harold’s Essay for Eleventh Grade English Which Was Never Handed In, Resulting in a C-Minus for the Semester
On the assigned subject of “Loneliness,” I have had many thoughts. Such as: when you know something that nobody else knows, you could be said to be alone. That’s because you’re aware of your separateness. So maybe that’s what “loneliness” is—awareness of your own secrets.
“God only knows,” some people might say. I guess He must feel pretty lonely. At least that’s what I’d say if I believed in God, like all my righteous family. But since I don’t, the things I know are all mine. Mine to live with, mine alone.
Most people at this school know about the accident. But I’ve wondered if I would ever tell what actually happened that night. I could hardly bear those horrible days of sitting around in the hospital, I wanted to blurt out a confession so bad. At the funeral I was a blubbering mess, like somebody squeezing a sponge, but it was for more reasons than anyone might expect.
He could be a real bastard when he was drunk. I mean, most of the time he was a real nice guy, you know, the girls always called him “sweet.” And it was true, even when he drank too much. But every now and then, I could see that little streak of belligerent asshole show itself. I mean, who knew him better than I did?
So that’s why I have no excuse. I know he never would have hit me or anything. But I caved in when he threatened me, like I’d always done before. First I tried to tell him no, and say how we better get a bus home or something. But he said, “Look Harry you little fuck, wait’ll Mom hears what you been doin’ tonight.” He was so plastered his voice was all slurred like he was retarded, but he still knew how to scare me. That was the mean streak. As if he would ever tell Mom, because that would make him as guilty as me. But you know, I was fucked up, how could I think straight?
Nobody was there in the parking lot to hear us. Later, I just told the story that he split without telling me, took off for that girl’s place in the south valley. But that crazy fucker never even made it up the freeway ramp before he passed out at the wheel. Goddamn him.
I played innocent. Told just enough truth to make a good lie. Made my Mom cry and pray even more when she found out I’d been drinking too, but that’s something that just couldn’t be avoided. I pretended I didn’t know how shitfaced he was.
I never said a word about how I just handed the keys over. And let him drive away. That’s my big fucking secret, so now you know. I am a spineless dickhead lying coward, and my big brother is dead.
This is a very typical piece of writing and tackles a theme that is explored in other stories in the collection: intrafamily relationships. There is the story ‘Baptism,’ for instance, in which we get to see how the relationship between Danny and his adopted brother Willy develops over the years. Willy, I should explain is not just any old stepbrother, he’s an Indian:
When Willy first came to us, I hated him. Now that he’s dead, I feel like killing somebody.
When I was eight I swear to God I thought he was retarded. He never said a word, I mean nothing, and he never looked at you, always at the floor. At school they threw him in Special Ed, and when Larry Sherman said, “Is he a retard?” I said, “Yeah and he wets the bed too.” Even though it wasn’t true. For all those years, Willy was chased, always chased for nothing,
It takes a while for the two to form a bond but one is formed. It’s the setting to this story that’s particularly interesting though because Danny’s family are Mormons. They’re the Ashes. Willy’s given name is actually Wilson Yazzi and the first thing his new family does is change his name to Ashe. It’s some years later when, as Danny puts it, he’d lost his faith, that the true advantage of the new name becomes apparent:
Hey man, in the whole universal scheme of things, in that whole random jumble of dust and constellations, all we’ve got is alphabetical order, and that, Willy, brother, means you’re in a hell of a lot better place now than when you were back on the rez among the Yazzis.
Danny’s world view is a particularly interesting one. The Mormon faith is a very male-centric one. Women are excluded from the Priesthood. While still eight Danny notes:
I couldn’t wait till I was twelve. Twelve meant I got ordained as a Deacon—I got more God-power than my mom had—so I was eagerly waiting.
Needless to say the story does not have a happy ending nor do many of the stories in this collection not that many have . . . what shall we call them? . . . proper endings. In her review of this book Cheryl Anne Gardner called Brent’s style “experimental” but I don’t think it is besides I find the word off-putting having had my fill of so-called experimental music and poetry – unorthodox would be a better expression. That doesn’t mean every story leaves us hanging there but if you’re looking for your standard, common or garden beginning-middle-end format then this possibly isn’t the book for you; Brent’s approach to storytelling is more interesting and less predictable than that on the whole although ‘Saxophone’ was more traditional in its construction as was ‘Blues for Jane’ the two tales focusing on jazz musician, Wes, at different times in his life.
The central story in the collection, ‘This Handful of Pebbles’ – it literally is in the middle of the book – is really a group of flash pieces varying in size up to about 500 words, snapshots that build up to tell a story. This time the characters cross over from one section to the next although no one is in all of them so what we have here are like stills from a movie that make some sense on their own but it’s not until you view them together in the right order that they make real sense. It’s cinematic in its structure: short scenes that get their point over and then “Cut!” and we’re onto a new scene. The players here are Marv, Sid and Emily; Sid and Emily have already appeared in one of the sections of the story ‘The Green Beetle’ and Sid will turn up again in ‘Echoes – Five Men Speak’ later in the book along with Daniel Ashe from ‘Baptism,’ Wes, the saxophonist and two newcomers, Ty and Kamal.
Who a person is is a complex thing. It’s not until you get to see someone in a variety of contexts that you start to know them. When we first meet Sid his son has been in a car accident and is lying unconscious in hospital. Sid is refusing to be comforted by anyone and yet in ‘Echoes’ we witness him standing up in front of a church gathering talking about how in a moment of desperation he had called the phone number on a card left at his business by a couple of Mormon missionaries who had subsequently come to the hospital:
Let me tell you, these fine young men have a real spiritual power. They came to the hospital with me, and they laid their hands on Matthew’s head, and anointed him with sacred, um, olive oil, and they blessed him with the authority of your holy Mormon priesthood, and it was the very next day that he woke up.
His wife, a “sort of a Buddhist” is upset with him:
I’m sorry, I’ve gone on too long. I just, I just don’t know. I pray that Jesus will touch Emily’s heart too, and she’ll start speaking to me again, and our family can be healed. And we can be an eternal family.
So what we have here a similar situation to ‘Family Man’ only in this case Sid has had his eyes opened. He’s been forced to realise that his family was not indivisible, in fact broken families crop up repeatedly in this collection. I mentioned Wes a wee while ago. We meet the young jazz musician in ‘Saxophone’ on his way to see his dad. He’s not seen him in two years, not since his father left his mother and moved in with another woman. He doesn’t want to go and once he gets the answer he was expecting he doesn’t want to stick around. Too much has happened for any quick reconciliation. His father sees that the boy still has his grandfather’s sax in the car:
He leaned through the car window, unsnapped the case, and brought the shiny sax into the sunlight. He watched his father’s blunt fingers take it with care.
Suddenly he felt embarrassed. His dad didn’t care about jazz—he liked country music, as if he were one of these redneck cowboys, not the son of a great artist.
But nothing when it comes to families is that simple as Wes learns when he runs into Ollie Hammer, the pianist in his grandfather’s old band who opens up a whole new world of truth to him.
I could go on but I think I’ve made my point. This collection is like a jazz album, motifs and themes weave their way throughout the book:
[T]here is a lot going on in this book. A lot of themes, but most are of the addiction variety: addictions to love, grief, religion, assumptions, loneliness, predictability. Humans addicted to their pain.
For me the real pain in all of these stories actually stems from lack of comprehension. I don’t think there’s a character in the book who isn’t asking the question, although no one voices it in these words: “Where did I go wrong?” In some cases, yes, you can see where they turned left when they should’ve turned right but the worst anguish is reserved for the ones who have blindly followed what they believed to be the right course only to be abandoned by someone: husbands by wives, wives by husbands, parents by children and the faithful by their God. If there is a single thing that unifies all of the characters in this book it is emptiness as expressed eloquently by Jonson Burgess in ‘A Confession of Love and Emptiness:’
Consider this cup, made of plain white styrofoam, from which I’ve been taking meagre sips of water as I stare out the window, over the parking lot, past the trees to the highway, stare and sit, sit for hours as I do every day, trapped in this hospital bed. The cup is empty now. Once full of water, now empty. Now ready, you might even say willing, to be filled again.
What is the truth of a cup? What is the shape of an enclosed space when the enclosure is taken away? What remains here after my fingers clip and fumble in a flurry of fervent deconstruction? After I break away white chips like dry little ice floes, snapping them off one by one to end in a papery jumble on the table, mere flakes, capable of nothing, what is left? There’s no answer in the tiny hill of polystyrene stones, an airy white ruin. No, but beyond it there, still wavering like heat in the peachy afternoon light, I see the emptiness of the cup. I see its shape, its essence. Its essence is absence. Its centre lacks a centre. A cup without a yawning open cavity like a wound is no cup at all. A receptacle must be receptive. The truth of a cup is vacancy.
There is some truly thought-provoking writing here. There ought to be. This is a collection that goes back twenty years. Almost all the stories have been published in various journals so I’m not sure how purists will fare trying to pick fault with this book by pointing out that it’s been self-published. These stories are being republished and the production here excels many books I’ve read of late from traditional publishers. This is a quality product. It feels good in one’s hand. My only quibble as I’ve said is that it looks a bit too much like a textbook for my liking but I like textbooks so there. It was also a tad on the big size (9" x 6") but then again some people might regard that as a plus.
One thing I haven’t mentioned are the illustrations, several of which I’ve incorporated into this review. They’re by the same artist who designed the cover, one Wendy Drolma. I love the artwork on the front and back covers but personally I was a little underwhelmed by the black and white drawings on the inside. The general idea works but they didn’t excite me nearly as much as the prose did so, in all seriousness, if you’re looking for intelligent, grown-up, philosophical, short literary fiction then I can heartily recommend this book especially as a gift; I would have been dead pleased to get a copy in my Christmas stocking.
The book is available from Amazon for $14.50 (£11.50 in the UK no doubt because it’s an import) and also as an eBook from Smashwords for the very reasonable price of $4.99.
Brent Robison lives in the Catskill Mountains of New York. His writing has appeared in a dozen print and online literary journals, as well as hundreds of corporate training and marketing publications. His stories have won the Literal Latte Short Short Award, the Chronogram Short Fiction Contest, a Fiction Fellowship from the New Jersey Council on the Arts, and a Pushcart Prize nomination. He is also the publisher and editor of the Hudson Valley regional literary annual, Prima Materia.
 Personal e-mail, 21st August 2010
 Cheryl Anne Gardner, ‘Free Book Friday Review -- The Principles of Ultimate Indivisibility’, POD People, 25th September 2009