The Bigness of the World by Lori Ostlund
(University of Georgia Press, 2009)
Reviewed by Joe Mills
A few years ago, I was at a dinner party hosted by a woman who could have been nominated for a June Cleaver award. Married with two kids, she kept her three-bedroom house immaculate. As the discussion turned to parenting, she mentioned that after the birth of her first child, she wasn’t sure what to do with the placenta, so she put it in her fridge. She did the same with her second child’s. Both were still there behind the ice cream. No one knew what to say, but I remembered how Barbara Billingsley, the actress who played June Cleaver, once explained she wore pearls for the role to cover a tracheotomy scar.
Or, as every fairy tale insists, don’t expect stereotypical behavior because someone has a stereotypical appearance. The most normal-seeming people have odd habits and unexpected attitudes, and the behavior of lovers and family can be inexplicable. You may live with someone who takes a trip, returns with a shaved head, and doesn’t explain why. You may have a parent who insists on keeping broken appliances and frozen meat that will never be eaten. You and a lover may stop desiring each other although you share a bed each night.
Lori Ostlund explores these moments and the various ways our relationships form and fall apart in her wonderful collection, The Bigness of the World. With an impressive sensitivity, Ostlund chronicles our wrenching everyday yearnings, failings, and misunderstandings. Although the settings of these eleven stories range from Minnesota to Malaysia, they’re all concerned with the enigmatic workings of the heart.
Many of the characters in this collection go abroad, sometimes in an attempt to change a life with a dramatic gesture. In doing so, they often don’t understand what they see or even their own behavior. In “Nobody Walks to the Mennonites,” two American women visiting Belize City are determined to find a Mennonite community that a guidebook says is nearby. It becomes a quest, but when they finally arrive, they realize “they did not know what to do” or why they thought of the Mennonites as a destination. The story explores the unsettling dual voyeurism of tourists looking at natives who are looking back.
Ostlund suggests that even when we think we share a common understanding, it’s either an illusion or only temporary. In “Idyllic Little Bali,” a group of Americans hang around a hotel pool because “they are all tired of dealing with non-Americans, tired of having to explain themselves and of having to work so hard to understand what others are explaining to them.” They want the familiar comfort of a shared set of cultural references from Ted Bundy to Olivia Newton-John. Despite having these, however, they still cannot connect with one another in a meaningful way, and, when a tragedy occurs, their isolation becomes clear.
Ostlund captures the emotional dislocation involved in traveling and living abroad, and how, even though we ostensibly want to discover “something” about ourselves, what we find can make us uneasy. In this sense, her work fits into a literary lineage from Henry James to Paul Theroux, and journeys are both literal and metaphorical. Ostlund, however, never relies on easy symbols or pushes obvious ideological points. Nor do these stories depend on twists or offer smug self-discoveries; instead, they develop in unexpected ways that feel emotionally satisfying and honest.
Several of the characters in these stories teach, and their insistence on the precision of words and numbers contrasts with, and probably stems from, their inability to manage their personal lives. In “Upon Completion of Baldness,” when the narrator discovers someone has written on her classroom board, “MISS LUNDSTROM & MISS SHAPIRO ARE LEZZIE LOVERS!!” she has the discipline to take her students through a lesson on grammar and style, getting them to correct the sentence until it reads, “Ms. Lundstrom and Ms. Shapiro are lovers.” Her composure remains intact as long as she can concentrate on syntax; however, later, having fully absorbed the impact of her lover’s departure, she falls apart in front of her students who stare at her with “looks of sheer terror and helplessness.”
Writing about teaching allows Ostlund to explore relationships predicated on communication and examine how teachers often reveal more than they realize and pass along less than they know. In “Dr. Deneau’s Punishment,” a teacher attempts, as he sees it, to maintain standards among students full of “apathy and laziness and disdain” and to resist the demands of idiotic educators who misguidedly feel “we are the keepers of our students’ self-esteem and, as such, must never allow them to feel they have failed.” He clashes with his principal, who refuses to let him call a group of slow learners “The Donkeys,” and parents complain about his unorthodox methods of discipline. Although Dr. Deneau easily could be a figure of parody or a stereotype, Ostlund portrays him, and all her characters, with a remarkable empathy and generosity.
This collection exemplifies what superior fiction can accomplish; it allows us to experience life more intensely and understand it more fully. All of us, no matter our age or experience, are trying to grasp the bigness of the world. When we read the work of a writer like Ostlund, it almost seems possible.
Joe Mills currently holds the Susan Burress Wall Distinguished Professorship of the Humanities at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. In addition to writing two editions of A Guide to North Carolina's Wineries with his wife, Danielle Tarmey, he has published three volumes of poetry. His most recent collection is Love and Other Collisions.