Reviewed by Peter Grandbois
In a culture glutted on narrative realism, Craig Morgan Teicher's Cradle Book reminds us of why we tell stories in the first place. If the title doesn't tip the hat, then the opening sentence confirms it: "This story is older than the words with which it was written." The gods of Teicher's universe aren't concerned with the careful piling up of details designed to push a character through a narrative arc. They hurl stories at the reader from the abyss of the unconscious. Characters are drawn in a flash of the pen, as in "The Groaning Cows": "She was the weaver's daughter, a quiet girl who kept rabbits and loved to make up songs." Plots move by a different causality than our objective reality: "Stop! She cried. "You must not kill these cows, or else terrible luck will befall us all!"
The strength of these fictions, however, lies not in their difference from mainstream literature but in how Teicher manipulates his craft in ways unavailable to the realist: take the leap into the weaver girl's point of view in the last paragraph: "She knew then, when she heard the groaning, that her life would never be her own." That sudden shift forces the reader into a double epiphany regarding not only the forces that limit a life, but also the manner in which our good deeds become our punishment. "The Prisoner" creates tension by shifting perspective, but rather than going for the punch line, as lesser micro-fiction does, Teicher takes on big themes with biting wit: "First, I will make them abandon all dignity, pride and restraint as they torture me." In less than 250 words, Teicher hits on the truth of torture as well as Coetzee does in a 200-page novel: "Once they prove I am right, I will tell them the lie they want to hear: that there are some things we will not do."
Instead of the artificial clarity of the carefully orchestrated life evident in so much narrative realism, these pieces seek to explore what we don't understand, to open up questions that lead to more questions. The first half of "The Burning House" details a husband's predicament: his house is on fire with his wife inside. Rather than resolving the problem, the reader is treated to a series of possibilities for the husband's actions: "These are all very pressing questions, and there are many more that could be asked. Perhaps, someday, we will find answers among the rubble." Fables in the truest sense, these exquisite stories offer a sense of wonder even as they lead us deeper and deeper into the darkness of the unconscious. "We do all know, or at least we believe, that there are some things which must occur and which we cannot understand. Without them, the world would surely stop."
Books mentioned in this post