by Alta Ifland
Reviewed by Peter Grandbois
The great Argentinean writer Cesar Aira says, "The story is always about the unexplainable." Alta Ifland wrestles with the unexplainable in this collection, tossing it around before shoving it in a box for the reader to peek at -- if he dares. Death, time, and identity are just some of the ineffable topics Ifland tackles. Wisely, she does not hit them straight on but rather from behind, sneaking up on time, for example, through the mundane act of putting on shoes: "Today, as I was tying my shoelaces, it suddenly occurred to me that everything we do in life, every single insignificant gesture points to the future, whether we are conscious of it or not." Or sucker punching death with humor: "One day I entered a Jack-in-the-Box and, instead of asking for a burger, with the most candid eyes and sweet voice, I said, "Sir, could I please have some Death-in-a-box?" In most of the stories in this wonderfully disorienting collection, she demonstrates a fabulist take that allows only precarious footing in the quotidian: "When the furniture began to sweat, I knew that the world I'd known until then was gone."
Fernando Pessoa's complicating of identity clearly influences Ifland's work, as do the labyrinthine realities of Borges, Cortazar, and Kafka. However, Ifland follows her own path through the maze of artistic influence, keeping always an ironic awareness of the fictions within fictions she creates: "Others are experimenters in fiction. They experiment with words, silences, and then again, more words. I -- I am an experimenter in feeling." The most prevalent theme in Ifland's work is the slipperiness of self; as Pessoa put it, "I know that the world exists but I don't know if I do." Ifland's fictions interrogate Pessoa's ontological uncertainty. Instead of finding easy answers, they open more questions: "I grew up in the shadow of my twin sister, Hilda, who died at birth. I never managed to shake off the thought that maybe it was not she who died, but I, and the nurses made an understandable mistake. I sometimes wonder if my parents or anyone else suspects that I am the dead child, and that Hilda is among us, secretly alive." The result is that by the penultimate story -- a gem titled "What Would You Do?" -- the reader cannot answer the question of identity with any certainty. We are left only with the knowledge that in the unstable reality of Ifland's fictions, our only recourse is to imagine and re-imagine possible selves: "It seemed to me that only by shedding skin after skin could one continue to really live, so I imagined existence as a possibility, and invented many lives for myself."