I happened to meet Andrew Porter at a party not too long ago. At the time, I didn’t realize that a story from his collection The Theory of Light & Matter, which won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, is included in the Pushcart Prize 2008 anthology, which was sitting on my desk at home. I also didn’t know that he is friends with author David Liss, whom I had just interviewed for last week’s review of The Whiskey Rebels. These are the types of ephemeral convergences that make life somehow more real (definitely more interesting, anyway), and Porter does a fantastic job of recreating these entrancing confluences of lives.
Much is written about the first lines of stories, paradoxically the point of divergence and convergence. Clark Blaise, in his essay “To Begin, to Begin,” writes that the “most interesting thing about a story is … its beginning, its first paragraph, often its first sentence.... the story seeks its beginning, the story many times is its beginning, amplified.”
“Hole,” the first story in The Theory of Light and Matter, offers eloquent proof: “The hole was at the end of Tal Walker’s driveway.” The elegant simplicity of the statement does several things that Porter is able to reproduce again and again. It suggests immediately the theme of loss that runs like a thread through not only the story, but the collection as a whole. The ironic homonym points to the complexity in the search for meaning. Even the verb tense, “was,” suggests the absence of absence: Nothing is no longer there — reflecting the characters’ self-doubt and tentativeness in telling their difficult tales.
These are stories about characters that are working, or trying to work, through memories (some of them false) of loss, guilt, and emptiness. They are characters trying to make sense of their lives or things in their lives that changed them, or should have changed them, but which they haven’t been able to grasp. As Heather, the main character in the title story says, “It seemed that I had just opened up a hole in my life — a hole the precise size and shape of Colin `her boyfriend` — and that nothing in the intricate fabric of my life would ever be the same.” And so the story she tells tries to make sense of the hole and how it came to be there. The reader gets the sense that the characters, in reliving these moments tucked away in their memory, feel some relief in thinking about them, though they still can’t quite find a satisfactory resolution. The holes, like the one at the end of Tal’s driveway, are paved over, not filled in.
Porter’s tales are brimming with characters both likable and bewilderingly human. We see in them our own flaws and shortcomings and desires. These are quintessentially stories about the desire for redemption, the search for meaning, and the need for human contact, and so they’re stories about stories. The reader plays a part, too, in the characters’ attempts to define events and lives. In a sense, it is finally the reader who supplies the characters with significance. We fill, at least partially, the void. We occupy the confessional, listening and forgiving them their sins. They have paid penance. And we, the readers, are happy they did.•