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Baum On Books

Book Review: Truthtelling: Stories, Fables, Glimpses

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It’s always challenging to write about a group of short stories: What to mention? In Lynne Sharon Schwartz’s new collection called Truthtelling, “Pickup” deserves notice because, like the last story in the book, about a page turner of musical scores,  it references music, a special love, the author says, that has always informed her writing style.

“Pickup,” a good-humored romp, begins with a young woman slumping in front of a hotel, smoking, waiting to visit her father just out of surgery. She spies a big fancy car idling nearby and assumes she’s being taken for a hooker, but what the heck, she climbs in. It turns out, though, that she’s been mistaken for a well known  pianist and is being driven to perform a Rachmaninoff  piano concerto at Town Hall. Well, she did have piano lessons! She goes along, And out on stage.

The story’s a hoot, and representative of how Schwartz’s oddball narratives move. For decades Schwartz has been writing award-winning stories, poems, essays, memoirs, criticism, translations, and teaching. Truthtelling  is her 28th book. A selection of 25 --“stories, fables, glimpses” as she calls them, their subject matter and themes seem just right for our alienated, absurdist times. Full of comic fantasy and controlled loony desperation, the stories – from two pages to two dozen –  put  Schwartz’s  inventive talent on ample display.

She typically starts with what seem like casual, if slightly odd observations, and then segués into riffs that take the observations to an extreme – all the while having her narrators, first and third person points of view, admit they may sound deranged. Minor, ordinary incidents ease into major crises that prompt recollections. “A Lapse of Memory,” for example, begins this way: “I was horrified to realize I’d forgotten my mother. I don’t mean I left her waiting impatiently on some street corner, nothing like that. I mean I had forgotten her altogether, forgotten her existence.” The narrator is then put in mind of her mother when her boring dinner date orders a lemon meringue pie, her mother’s favorite. And off it goes,  Schwartz working her streamy nature-of-association magic. By the end of the tale, the narrator has moved from guilty catharsis about forgetting her mother to dubious revenge. Maybe.

The prose in all the stories is simple and direct, with dialogue that would seem to belong in a minimalist play, especially when the narrator seems to be talking to herself. It’s as though each narrator were two people – one who looks out, observing, conversing, the other who looks  within,  begrudgingly realizing she may sound cuckoo, but running with “what if” scenarios. Why not? After all, with a nod to the title of the collection, what is “truthtelling”?

Schwartz once said that in writing a story, as opposed to a novel, “you focus on one effect you want to achieve and everything is directed to that end.”  Sounds a bit like Edgar Allan Poe’s famous description of the short story writer.  “Having  conceived, with deliberate care, a certain unique or single effect to be wrought out,”  the writer  “invents what he needs to establish this “preconceived effect.”  Schwartz’s fiction does just that, replacing Poe’s horror with deadpan humor. Some stories are more serious than others, but all delight and surprise and warm the heart.