In Case We’re Separated

Excerpt from In Case We’re Separated

I Am Not Your Mother

Before they had ever lived in the house, somebody's useless cow had sickened and died in the shed next door. The shaggy rope that tethered her still lay in a corner, so when Sonia figured out that her older sister, Goldie, was having to do with a boy, she got up in the night, disentangled the rope, and tied Goldie to a leg of their bed.

Goldie never sneaked out at night. The town was dark even during the day. Wooden sheds, shops, and houses leaned into one another, creating attenuated triangles of shadow that met and crossed and made further overlapping triangles: layers of deeper shadow. It wasn't hard for Goldie to meet the boy -- who was tall and chubby, with a laugh that flung droplets onto her cheeks and made her ears tingle -- during what was known as day.

In the morning, Goldie's leg jerked sideways when she turned to put her feet on the floor, and she laughed at her sister's trick, then untied the rope and tied up Sonia, who was still sleeping. The rope's rough fibers had hurt Sonia's fingers. When she felt Goldie's touch on her ankle, in her sleep, her sore hand went to her mouth. Sonia, at fourteen, still sucked her thumb.

Goldie became pregnant. Their parents were frightened. Nothing like this had happened in either of their families before. They hadn't known about the tall boy -- who had gone to America. (Everyone wanted to leave if possible.) The parents never spoke of Goldie's big belly, but at last Aunt Leah, the mother's sister, came to see them. "Reuben and I have money for the ship", she said. "Give us the baby." Leah and Reuben had no children. Goldie screamed in childbirth and for days after, bleeding in the bed. The baby, a girl, was taken the day of her birth. Goldie's breasts were hot. They felt as if they were about to explode. "Suck me, suck me," she cried to Sonia at night.

Review of In Case We’re Separated

From the New York Times Book Review

"In Case We’re Separated": Family in 13 Stanzas

WHEN writers erect a visible scaffold around their work, they usually incorporate that architecture into the story. Think of "The Periodic Table," in which Primo Levi not only named the chapters for different elements but often worked the essence of those elements into the plot. Or Vikram Seth's novel in verse, "The Golden Gate," a narrative wedded to the unbending rules of the sonnet. In her radiant new collection of connected stories, "In Case We're Separated," Alice Mattison has done something similar, using a poetic form as the organizing principle. In a note on the last page, she explains: "This book's 13 stories imitate in prose the 13 stanzas of a double sestina, using repeated topics or tropes in something like the way a sestina . . . uses repeated words. In the changing order prescribed by the sestina pattern, each story includes a glass of water, a sharp point, a cord, a mouth, an exchange and a map that may be wrong."

What's different about Mattison's approach is that she has made the scaffolding invisible. Were it not for her author's note, the fact that items are deliberately shared across the stories -- or that the number of stories is itself meaningful -- would probably be lost on the reader. That the poetic contrivance needs to be pointed out makes it feel like an incantatory device, akin to the "prompts" writing instructors use to jump-start their students' imaginations. In this case, it's a prompt that Mattison (the author of seven previous works of fiction and one book of poetry, and an instructor at the Bennington Writing Seminars) has given herself. The result is a book filled with felicitous writing and ferocious insight.

The title story trades on a little irony: it and the other 12 pieces in the collection are about a family whose members couldn't lose one another if they tried -- which, for the most part, they don't. They're Jewish, originally from Eastern Europe, immigrants who settled in Chicago and Brooklyn and then dispersed farther, to Wisconsin, to New Haven, to Boston. They're familiar -- not just to one another but to readers. Mattison's characters could be neighbors of any number of Grace Paley's people, with whom they share a place in time. (Though they wouldn't be close friends, being relatively unconcerned with politics.) They could show up in Amy Bloom's world, which is theirs too. They have problems (the parents). They have issues (the children). They can be petulant and whiny (both parents and children), but like a delightfully profane uncle or zaftig aunt, they're almost always endearing, not because they're so likable but because they're consistently and helplessly and unapologetically themselves. What Lillian (who is the sister of Ruth and the daughter of Fanny, who is the sister of Sylvia and Bobbie) says here holds for all Mattison's characters:

"When I was young, I attempted suicide 13 times. Now I don't see my life in contrast to the lives of other women my age, with their marriages, their children. My life contrasts with my death, and at times everything seems to have sharp edges, as if the people I know -- work people, family, friends and lovers -- were cutouts, not paper dolls but dolls made of metal. They are so real they seem not quite alive, for a moment, and when I touch their edges electricity sparks. They are so real it is a painful joy to be near them, no matter what they are like as people."

The other conceit of Mattison's title is that she has made it difficult to prise one character from another. Mattison deliberately withholds the obvious blunt instruments -- offering a family tree on the book's flyleaf or stories placed in chronological order or a singular narrative voice. Instead, the stories jump narrators, jump decades, jump points of view. Here is Lillian in high school, hoarding bottles of pills. Here is her earnest sister, Ruth, a Girl Scout leader, offering poetry as an antidote to depression. Here is Ruth grown up now, divorced, having a moment of religiosity and here is her son, David, and his girlfriend, who is a midwife. Here is the midwife's father, Bob, who marries Ruth. Here is Ruth's cousin, Bradley, a boy in the 1950's, trying to figure out who the man is who visits his mother at night but can never stay over. Here is Bradley at 13, finding out. And Bradley again, in middle age, in love with the memory of his first boyfriend, James, who died of AIDS. Here is Bradley's cousin Richard, who loved James too. Here is Richard's mother, Sylvia, a "crackerjack" student at Hunter after the war, and her secret affair with a fellow teacher in the 1960's. Here is Lillian again, grown-up, working and functionally self-destructive. Here is the generation that came over on the boat. Here is the daughter who married a gentile. (He converted.) Here is Josh, Sylvia's grandson, living in Somerville, Mass., with his girlfriend, who may soon leave him because he has turned out to be the sort of sensitive guy women end up finding tiresome.

And here is Alice Mattison, showing, not telling, the obvious: Families are messy. They reveal their own truths, in their own time.
--Sue Halpern
The New York Times Book Review