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Valentines (Knopf, 2007) is the most perversely titled collection of short stories that I have ever come across. If valentines suggest the strike of Cupid's arrow, Olaf Olafsson's twelve stories tell of grimmer fatalities. The stories, each one named for a month, cycle through the seasons, but the bourdon of entropic dissolution never stops rumbling.
The stories may be divided into those in which an unforeseen turn of events exposes a weakness in the male character's constitution, and those in which the weakness itself brings on the turn of events. Compare, for example, the last two stories, both of which involve drinking problems. In "November," Richard is an alcoholic whose recovery is checkered at best; he has lost everything, but he has managed to hold on. He has just been driving his ex-wife to her home after their eight year-old granddaughter's birthday party. She suddenly intuits that he has been drinking again. This frightens him so much that he runs a red light, landing her on the operating table and leaving him in a terrible moral pickle: if she dies, no one will ever know. In "December," in contrast, Henry is a truly recovering alcoholic - he no longer drinks - who is surprised by his wife's confession that, sometimes when they're making love, she imagines that he is his best friend, Joe. Henry sees at once that his friendship will never be the same, even though Joe has done nothing. Then he confesses that he has slept with Joe's wife, Debbie, twice. But his wife is asleep and it isn't clear that this announcement gets through. "December" may be the brightest of the tales in Valentines, because Henry's marriage is not conclusively wrecked at the end. The prognosis, however, is not good.
The opening of "December" is characteristic of Mr Olafsson's plain, understated style.
The old friends used to meet at Joe and Debbie's place between Christmas and New Year's, usually on the twenty-eighth or twenty-ninth. They ate dinner together and always meant to play cards afterward but never did. Instead they talked, drank wine and sang. Henry had given up drinking but he joined in the singing and was sure he enjoyed himself just as much as the others. He had quit a few years back but still attended AA meetings every Saturday morning in a church not far from the sea. The meetings last an hour, and when they were over he would remind himself how lucky he was. He was an engineer, and he and his wife were comfortably off. Fay had gone back to her job as a lab technician when their two older boys started university. Their youngest was in middle school. He was little trouble, spending most of his time on the computer. They had a marriage others envied.
This looks innocent enough at first, but a question lingers. The paragraph, although written in the third person, is laid out precisely as Henry himself would set it down. He is candid about the AA meetings, but his feelings of good fortune are circumspect. This is how you would expect a man to describe his life if you met him in conversation. Although everything seems contrived to keep you at a distance, it winds up making Henry seem incredibly familiar. This is how men are.
The problem with Henry is exposed in the penultimate sentence. Henry's son is "little trouble, spending most of his time on the computer." This, too, is spoken as most men would speak it. The problem is that they would speak it. They would be proud of a son who is "little trouble," because such a son is probably destined to get on in the world. And most intelligent boys do spend a lot of time on the computer today. There is nothing false about Henry's summing-up of the boy. And that is what is wrong with him. It exposes the same alienation that allowed him to commit adultery with his best friend's wife - the revelation that will be made on the last page of the story.
"Alienation" is a word that has gone out of fashion in book talk, but there is so much of it in Valentines that it can't be avoided. This is not, however, the bored (and boring) "alienation" of "existentialist" novels written forty years ago, full of characters struck narcoleptic by anomie. No. Mr Olafsson's alienation is a dangerous state, because a man who does not fully inhabit himself will sooner or later lose control of his life. Henry has "a marriage others envied." That is how he feels his marriage: as a success seen by others. It is not enough to be content within his marriage. It is not so much that he needs an audience as that he needs to be a member of that audience. That is why Fay's confession - that she imagines that Henry is Joe when they're making love - is so devastating. If he, sitting in the audience, knows what Fay has just told him onstage (as it were), then so does everybody - especially Joe. The marriage is no longer so enviable. A man strong enough not to look at himself from the outside, to fear that he might be foolish, would be able to laugh off Fay's secret. Or he might wonder why she told him her secret in the first place. But such men are rare. Henry does not stop to ask about Fay. He is too stricken with immediate leakage.
We know at the start of "November" that Kathryn, Richard's wife, is undergoing surgery after an automobile accident. Richard wishes that it was he who had been injured, not his ex-wife. Or so he says. At the end of the story, which takes place in the same moment, he is not sure that he wants his ex-wife to live. It would appear that the world is only big enough for one of them. Richard's fear of being found out is even greater than Henry's: he is terrified of being found out. He has been found out before, again and again, but now it is a question of keeping the secret of his drinking from his granddaughter. The world provides an inexhaustible supply of people before whom one can be newly humiliated, newly exposed as the same old defective. Instead of understanding this fact, Richard runs from it, hoping that this time he won't be found out - even though he is always found out.
Embedded in the moment that opens and closes the story are the recounting of Richard's unraveling, years before, when his daughter was a girl, and his recollection of the drive, that evening, from his daughter's house. What he remembers is two and a half pages of conversation with Kathryn. It emerges that Kathryn has suspected Richard of drinking since the beginning of the evening. He tries to concentrate on his driving at first, but his horror of being unmasked by Kathryn overwhelms him.
Richard drove through a red light. He hadn't been aware of the lights, hadn't really been aware of anything but the fear in his own breast. Perhaps his eyes had been on the glove compartment, perhaps on her as she reached in her bag for the handkerchief. He had driven straight in front of a brand-new Jeep. The eighteen-year-old driver had borrowed it from his parents and was on his way home from the movies. He smelled of cigarette smoke, but the police didn't know whether he had been drinking. They informed Richard of that when they arrived at the hospital. They said they didn't know whether the boy had been drinking but mentioned that they would be doing a blood test on him. The boy was on the operating table like Kathryn, but his injuries were not considered serious.
This is magnificently scattered and inconclusive, full of thoughts not being thought through. Most of it is about the boy: Richard will be in luck if the boy turns out to have been drinking. He is already in luck in that the police don't want to "do a blood test" on him. The paragraph perfectly captures the mind of a man anxiously assessing his odds. There is no real thought of Kathryn, no genuine regret. After the collision, the first important question is whether Richard will get caught. That is all that matters to him in his severely reduced life.
Richard and Henry are familiar. We have met them. We may even have been them. We are all on the same gradient of alienation and self-deception. That is what makes Valentines a deeply disturbing, sometimes upsetting, read. Bad things happen in some of these stories, but they are invariably compounded by a weakness that haunts most of us. As Mr Olafsson tears apart one complacent life after another, we find that, like witnesses to a gruesome accident, we can neither bear to look nor manage to look away.
I've chosen to write the last two stories in the Valentines in part because they complement one another with regard to the division that I posited at the outset. I also chose them because they are quite brief and relatively simple. None of the stories is long, but "April" and "May," to choose another pair of adjacent, complementary stories swirl with complexities of tone and motive that the reader ought to discover fresh. ("April" is unquestionably a tour de force.) The author of three novels, Olaf Olafsson establishes himself here as a master of the art of lapidary storytelling. (March 2007)
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