Grace: Selected Stories by Robert Moulthrop (49 pages, Wordrunner E-Chapbooks)
The first impression made by this short but rich story collection is quite contradictory to its title. Perhaps it should be called Transformation rather than Grace. Many of the main characters within are experiencing a radical metamorphosis – in lifestyle, consciousness, physical well-being or otherwise. A state of purity is not what comes to mind after you’ve clicked through its pages.
In “Mrs. Mellors”, the title character suffers both physical deterioration as well as a mental decline that keeps shifting her in and out of her life and herself. The narrator of “Elvis’s Dog, the One Named Moonbeam” seems headed for a transformative moment of disappointment over a long-held (if trivial) belief. The main character of the title story is also at a tipping point. His consciousness has come unstuck in time, pirouetting around a professional tragedy that threatens to swell into a larger personal one. And the “grace” of the title is the small kernel of peace he finds while watching his children sleep – a moment of rest in his turmoil when “no one else is talking, and there’s only the silence of breath.”
The stories are charged by a roiling disorientation that marks most of the narrating consciousnesses. Moulthrop works that device with ambiguity. He doesn’t lead the reader directly towards the transformative experience but forces him or her to actively dig around to figure things out – that is, to piece together exactly what the heck is going on from the bits of madness.
The exception is “Uncle Louis”, the straightforward reminisence of a nephew looking back on a family member from his childhood, and evaluating his whole family in the process. Initially, he found his Uncle Louis “boring and scary”. But that changes once Louis, suddenly widowed, morphs into an aspiring Beat playwrite, something the nephew finds inspiring in his otherwise conservative, straight-laced family. When Louis puts on a reading of his ‘play-in-progress’ in the basement of City Lights Bookshop the family is invited to attend. Predictably, they storm out, sensibilities shocked by Louis’ new life, look and crowd. “And that was really all”, the nephew notes. “Change happens and then it stops, and for a while – sometimes a long while – things are a new same.” Such an ending does seem a bit pat, especially since, length-wise, this story is the centre-piece of the collection.
But perhaps that’s the point. In “Uncle Louis”, Moulthrop is suggesting that change is no unnatural state, and lightens the existential load of the melancholic reflection found in the other stories. Our best hope may be, he signals, to live neither in grace nor entropy, but through the recognition that there can be some occasional balance in-between.