Review of Asunder


Fiction by Robert Lopez

Dzanc Books, November 2010
Paperback: 165pp; $16.95
Review by Alex Myers
A dense collection, Asunder is half short stories, most of them very short, and half a novella-in-shorts. In the first section of unconnected shorts, Robert Lopez moves through scenes and characters that are mostly blank, anonymous—they could be anywhere and anyone. For this reason, the stories have a haunting quality, a creepy sort of universality.
As a master of the very short form, Lopez wastes no words. Within the first phrase of a story, he locks in to meaning. Take, for instance, the opening line of “Scar”: “This Deborah talks out of the left side of her mouth, as if she’s trying to keep what she says secret from her own right ear.” Themes, such as lop-sidedness, secrecy, halves, and self, jump out of the sentence and then drive the rest of the story. The sparseness with which Lopez writes lightens the stories; he gives just enough to avoid confusion, as with these lines from later in the same story:

Just as we are pulling up to a red light she says like she is accusing me of something, You’re not wearing the seat belt. I answer, I only put it on when it rains. Out of the left side of her mouth comes, You’ve never gone through a windshield.

Suggestiveness is a strength; this is prose full of possibility. Not over-written, not lacking any key details, he continues to strike the perfect balance.
Several themes recur throughout the short stories in the first half of Asunder. One of these is metafiction, best captured by the title story. In this piece, the prose and purpose are front and center: “Someone in particular wanted to compose a story without characters and details. Without a setting. No themes, no ambiguities…A story without exposition or a conflict or an arc and with nothing at all at stake.” The irony, of course, is that between these musings, there is a story that has all of these disavowed components.
Many of the stories are also styled as “variations on a theme.” These shorts call to mind the piano piece “The Goldberg Variations,” in which a phrase is taken and modified, added to, sped up, slowed down, thoroughly explored—though Lopez’s method is more like Phillip Glass than Bach. For instance, in “Priapism,” a five page story, there are sixteen variants of a situation involving a man with an erection, his wife, children, a bathroom, a dog, a roast in the oven, and the kitchen table. It is baffling and delightful, playful and serious, a gorgeous statement of how prose can be turned inside-out and back again.
For this reader, the novella-in-shorts, titled “The Trees Underground,” was not as engaging as the first half of the collection. Centered around a first-person narrator whose job is shepherding blind people, the stories explore how “the blindsters,” mostly Blind Betty and Pity Jimmy, navigate and understand the world. The plot, as well as the setting, fails to fully materialize. It is the language that brings the novella to life, particularly the speech of Blind Betty, who creates her own verbal sets, such as: “Blind Betty says Yes married No instead of Maybe So.” Once Lopez establishes a few of these idiosyncrasies of speech, the stories have a tremendous texture to them. But the spirited buoyancy of language can only support so much weight, and in other areas, the novella sags.
Admirers of the short-short form will appreciate this collection. With perfection in phrasing and attention to the minutiae of prose, Asunder presents a model for how new the English language can seem. There is nothing tried or tired here.

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