For its second offering to the hungry world of literary fiction, Ninebark Press brings us Alta Ifland's short story collection, Elegy for a Fabulous World. From the very first story, Ifland had me in her grasp with merciless, darkly funny tales from her childhood in communist Ukraine. In bleak, unapologetic images, she shows us the gypsies that camped outside her town, the gravedigger the children all harrassed, the way the trash collectors failed, and the magic of one coveted bottle of Coca Cola. You can read the titular story online at AGNI Magazine. Not my favorite example, but the strange picture of what constitutes a seaside vacation for Soviets will give you an idea of what the rest of the book has to offer.
Ifland's gift is control. She shrugs at absurdity with the measured pace of a female Nabokov. Yet just as you're sinking into a mild rhythm of predictable slice-of-life revelations, she jerks the image just a bit, skews it enough to remind you: this is foreign. So, the mute adopted sister you're accustomed to seeing, with her iconic silence and her mild beauty, may not stop as a symbol of some unknowable aspect of childhood. She may suddenly go jetting off into space as the story takes a sudden flinch outside the deftly drawn limitations of the village, the family, the characters, the way of life. Ifland injects just enough of these blank surprises to elevate her work from competent memoir into the realm of contemporary craft.
The second half of the book delivers more typical contemporary short stories. Well crafted, interesting, satisfying, but lacking the depth and impact of the first section.
A few stories into the collection, when I was so enchanted with the voice, the landscape, the complex dark shadows of it, it occurred to me how impossible, how thin it would all seem if these same stories were set in modern times, in the loud, plastic American world. Is it possible for her, I wondered, to create this same kind of elegant starkness without the exterior starkness of village life, without cell phones or televisions or that brisk cacophony a more contemporary set of characters would be wading through. There's a timelessness to the childhood that Ifland renders that would be, maybe, fractured by the introduction of technology, information, something faster and less private. The second half of the book answered, to some extent, my question, as the stories that took place in office buildings and other less austere locations didn't have the same effect on me as those in the sort of anti-fairytale settings of the earlier pieces. So the mute sister could only fly away into space out of the house without wires attached to it, and the man crying in the graveyard could only be as profound if his life existed in rumor and legend, instead of a newspaper story.
The best thing about the book is the way the identities shift and change, particularly the mother and the main character herself. One can find these common characters in the earlier stories but not necessarily pin down a "she" throughout, or even an "I." A great example of this is a story where the main character takes her husband back to the old country to meet her parents, whose desire to feed him and nurture him and impress him with food nearly kills him. Her return to her homeland, accompanied by the uninitiated American, made me think of my experience reading the book, how hopeless it was for the husband to understand her family, or for her to show him to them properly. Ultimately, there is only the reality of what they are, and what he is, physically, to show for it. And this was what impressed me about Elegy for a Fabulous World. Ultimately, it is in surreal images and what facts and memories can be clearly delivered that this other, fabulous world exists. And if this old, communist life can only be understood in fragmentary, shifting narratives, looped through with the myths of the old country and the realities of the new, then Ifland's atttempt is a success.