But if it were real

The White Road by Tania Hershman

Amy Charles 19 October 2008

Soundbites: headlines inspire many of the stories in Hershman's collection

Hershman is an interested, dreaming science observer who pays serious and at times myopic attention to sci-tech news stories and considers what they might mean

If you’re looking for science-themed stories, now’s your moment. There’s wide variety, though, in the quality of how science is used. Take the Metropolitan Opera’s new production of Doctor Atomic – it’s got an elaborate and very pretty backdrop, patterned on the boxes of the periodic table, with formulae scrawled in light on a scrim; but when I saw it in the New York Times’ video, I saw no particular meaning in it beyond “atomic science here”, and when I heard the director say “I know nothing about science”, I thought: “Science-decorator.” It’s not an unusual tactic for fiction writers who are not themselves scientists: do something science-themed and decorate the work with beautiful words and images lifted from science.

Tania Hershman does better. She’s not a scientist, nor a science-decorator. Instead she’s an interested, dreaming science observer who pays serious and at times myopic attention to sci-tech news stories and considers what they might mean, how people might live with them if handed them like a lump of clay. Her brimming short story collection The White Road (Salt Publishing, 2008) is about half stories of this nature. “Evie and the Arfids” is about a working woman, children grown, who goes to work in a factory making radio-frequency ID tags, and turns underground savior; “My Name is Henry” traces, backwards, the mental degeneration of a young man struck by lightning. The story, like others in the collection, starts with a quote from a popular science news magazine. But it wouldn’t be fair to say that these stories are “science-inspired”; they’re more than that. If the news is that lightning-strike victims suffer multiple “areas of damage dotted around the brain”, then Hershman, a former science journalist herself, will take that fact and fashion it a non-clinical, hyperreal, fictional, existentially meaningful reality: Henry.

This is an approach that’s been used to marvelous effect in fiction before. Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain blooms sickly with the living, dreaming meanings of tuberculosis, and of the tuberculosis patient; Thomas Pynchon's Gravity’s Rainbow turns the Poisson distribution into an object of sex-entangled terror. So is Hershman a new Mann? No; neither is she, I think, the new Atwood or Bradbury her blurbists claim her to be. The stories are uneven, and the workmanlike, deadline-driven reporter is still fighting with the poet. Too often she writes over the surface of the plot (this happens, then that happens, and y looks like z) without getting beneath to a transformative dream or an emotionally arresting moment, getting by on snap and rhythm. The stories take place in familiar but abstracted nowheres – a bedroom, an office, a hill – with the places in a story not necessarily joining at any seams, and this gives the strange, untethered effect of photo montage. Hershman gets by with it, but I get the feeling that the strategy is a workaround for having trouble setting short-short stories more concretely.

There’s a deeper problem, too. Fourteen years ago, I was assessing applications for a writing program, and – who knows why – a surprising number of them were what I came to call “Bad Daddy” stories, featuring a congested, violent, incoherent sexuality, shame, lurid descriptions of rape, incest, and self-harm, scissored-up wardrobes, and an abiding sentimentality rooted in the author’s self-pity and maintenance of his or her own innocence. Come watch my humiliation show, they said; It’s my therapy. There’s a wide streak of this in many of Hershman’s stories – “Mugs”, “The White Road”, “You’ll Know”, and “Self Raising” come to mind – and it’s thanks in part to a narrative position so deep inside the protagonist’s consciousness that the little self-talking voice is by far the loudest, and thanks also to a genuine and interesting delight in the childishly lurid – the smashed cake, the missing fingers. But it springs also from a hope, I think, that reporting crabbed, furious sensation after sensation will be enough. It isn’t. In those moments the fiction requires more generosity, more openness and connection to the world, more careful exploration of the impulse to violence; it needs to be more interesting and revealing of what it is to be human and violent – of that id, and what it means.

This tendency to dig blindly at the wound hurts the title story, in which the narrator burns out her retinas with Antarctica’s whiteness in order to stop seeing her child’s violent death, and shows up the story as a conceit. I recall an article in the New York Times a few years ago about visiting writers and teachers distracted by the whiteness in Antarctica, and their need to see it again; I don’t know whether Hershman read about the enchantment of those visitors or whether she was making a story from it, but I found the narrator’s Southern voice, her references to her child’s death, and her solution to remembering all implausible. The casual violence was too easy, and there was too little else underneath it, except Antartica’s whiteness.

What saves most of Hershman’s stories is the fact that she writes well and with a coherent sense of dream, so that even the stories that most remind me of Mondino’s video of Bjork stabbing a doll (“Violently Happy”) are literate and well-made. The best in the collection, “On a Roll”, has a muddy and needlessly recursive middle involving an airplane dream that turns real, but the end leaves the protagonist naked and reborn in Las Vegas in a scene that made me think of John Cheever’s “The Swimmer”. God knows how you got there, and you know that part of what you’re holding is kitsch, but all the elements of dream have done just right and brought you to some majestic moment. Others stories have a gentleness and maturity that show a deep sympathy with all the bits of business people do for love, the work of it. In “Drizzling”, two pages rich in detail and low on exposition, a faltering couple fails at a planned new excitement and the woman forgives the man; “Firsts” is a tiny, lovely fiction, a moment that collapses a woman’s young self with her older, more sophisticated self, and her man’s silent appreciation of the two.

Throughout the stories runs a novelty, a grown woman’s voice telling frank, taboo stories about motherhood and other facts of womanhood. They aren’t comic poses; they aren’t breathy sentimental vignettes. A woman hides from her son, whom she thinks stupid and dislikes. Narrators talk without any attempt at self-delusion or at ingratiating themselves of the burdens of sex, fertility, men, childrearing. As I read, I thought how well Hershman does it and how unusual it is, and what a pity that it should be so in contemporary fiction.

Related information

Tania Hershman’s book The White Road is available in paperback from Salt Publishing or from Amazon.

Read short fiction by Hershman on LabLit.