Mar 28, 2011

#35: Where We Must Be by Laura van den Berg

Author Website:
Available: What the world will look like when all the water leaves us

While it's important to honour the classics of short fiction as truly great stories, I feel it's equally important to place modern writers within such a context. It's all too easy to suggest that today's writers struggle to compare without fully evaluating their experimentation with style, topic, and structure.

While I'm still to mention Sherwood Anderson, Donald Barthelme, Katherine Mansfield, Doris Lessing, Lydia Davis, and any number of other fine writers in this ever expanding blog, today I'm focusing on Laura van den Berg, whose debut collection what the world will look like when all the water leaves us was shortlisted for The Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award in 2010.

I'm not at all surprised it was shortlisted, for if there's one things van den Berg does extremely well, it's playing with thematic elements and creating new hybrids from seemingly cliched narratives. In van den Berg's world, missionaries become obsessed with creatures rumoured to be living in the Congo; a clerk who sells Balinese masks takes solace in them as a love affair falls to pieces, and, in where we must be, a failed actress takes on a particularly challenging role.

The Story
Jean has taken a job as a Bigfoot impersonator at a recreation park in Northern California. People pay to be chased by Bigfoot; someone has to fill his hairy shoes. Jean spends her downtime with Jimmy, a lover who's fast succumbing to lung cancer. They live in a sleepy neighbourhood with rusty water pipes.

With Jimmy's time running out, Jean ponders her own existence. Having walked away from the heartbreak of countless failed auditions, she's found comfort behind the mask of Bigfoot. With Jimmy dying and her mother constantly berating her lack of career progress, Jean hides away from reality as best she can. But she's yet to meet her next customer for the day: a man who has no interest in being chased by a Bigfoot and is looking for an entirely new experience...

Why It Sticks
where we must be impressively balances the more traditional short story territory of loss and with a humourous bent on acting as escape, as affirmation and as desperation. The absurdity of the Bigfoot impersonator is extreme, yet not so extreme to be considered unlikely, as anyone who's visited a fun park will attest. In Jean, the story finds its emotional centre, a young failed actress who longs to be something, while all the time acknowledging Jimmy's increasingly fragile state.

Time here is truly of the essence. Time waiting; time planning; time slipping away while day-to-day living occurs. The relationship between Jean and Jimmy is beautifully rendered, while all around them we see decay; the softening of pears, the rust in the water, and the slow dissolution of long-term life plans.

You will not read another story like where we must be this year. The theme of loss may on the one hand feel familiar, but then perhaps this is van den Berg's greatest strength: Taking the familiar and rendering it anew, linking fear, mythology and personal experience into an all the more powerful cacophony of emotion.


  1. This one keeps coming up on my Amazon recommended reading list of late. Will have to add it to my reading list. Is there a post-apocalyptic element in there at all?

    Have you read Brad Watson's Aliens in the Prime of their Lives? A good one to add to your contemporary short fiction list.

  2. Hi Mark,

    No, no real post-apocalyptic element, or to be more accurate, focus more on the emotional apocalypse than the global.

    I've not read Brad Watson but will definitely track him down. Thanks for the tip!

    Just read The Pedestrian by Ray Bradbury, and while not apocalyptic, it's certainly a brief but powerful examination of the self in an increasingly mechanised society. .

  3. Yeah I head that the Pedestrian was Bradbury's genesis for Fahrenheit 451. Bradbury is one of my absolute favorites. Such haunting timeless stories.


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