Captives, by Angela Meyer
In one of Angela Meyer’s stories, a man is trapped in a toilet and may never get out. Like him we are captives – we cannot escape who we are. In other stories:
- A nineteen-year-old feels “the smallness of her world like a bruising pressure on her skin.”
- A man has the means to do what he really wants to do (space travel and growing vegetables), but never gets around to it.
- A woman is captive to past trauma, which compels her to flee job and home every two years.
- A shy woman on holiday in Europe tries to own “the romance of loneliness.” On the last day of her trip, “I take eighty self-portraits with wax figures at Madame Tussaud’s.”
- A Scottish woman who is unable to conceive attends a neighbour giving birth. Seeing the baby “wrenched me like a neep out of the ground.” She asks herself: “Was a witch just a woman whose desires had gone so long unfulfilled that sugar turned to vinegar on her tongue?”
Yet, while we are captives, we may choose how to respond to our captivity – “desperate improvisations”, to quote Wallace Stegner. The nineteen-year-old swings herself around the Hills Hoist, “light-headed and grinning”. A person who hears voices finds a talisman to protect her. A patient with no short term memory is regularly visited by a woman who confides her troubles to him and is comforted by his concern before he quickly forgets.
Some improvisations are extreme. A female prisoner with pica (eating non-food items) swallows progressively bigger things until her ability enables her to escape prison. A photographer helps a person who craves suicide to capture this desire, by being photographed, with his family, while pretending to be already dead, in the manner of Victorian post-mortem portraits.
Some of the stories portray responses to mental illness. Meds concisely and precisely expresses the ambivalence of many to medication. The narrator has not yet filled his prescription, but his partner is taking her meds. “Sacha had bought a new bike, started getting up earlier. Some optimism was evident where before there had been none. … She just settled into her job, as though it were an old pillow she’d carefully fluffed up. … I was supposed to feel relieved and grateful, to desire the same calm capitulation for myself.”
Captives consists of 38 stories of flash fiction – micro-stories, mostly from 60 to 600 words. Reading the collection is more like reading a book of poems than one of conventional short stories. Meaning is concentrated or implied, so that any explanation of what a story is about would be longer than the story itself. I found that I was reading them like poems, stopping to reflect, rereading, going back to them after a day or so, not taking in too much of this rich fare at one time.
One of the multiple meanings of the title of this book is that each story, in a minimum of words, captures something – an insight, a human strength or weakness, the varied constraints upon us and the diverse ways we respond to them. Each story is a small gem, expertly faceted to reflect our depths and surfaces back to us.
It is a dark book, about bad things happening. Yet I felt uplifted by reading it, due to the quality of the writing and the skill of the storytelling. I was captivated.