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David V. Urban

Stories Begetting Stories

On Peter Orner.

In this engaging and moving volume of what he calls "a book of unlearned criticism that stumbles into memoir," acclaimed fiction writer Peter Orner draws upon stories by various writers in an attempt to make sense of his own life. Orner reluctantly describes Am I Alone Here? as a work of "ekphrasis," in which he tries to "make some (poorer) art of other (greater) art as a means of trying to explain a few things to myself." He continues:

Stories, both my own and those I've taken to heart, make up whoever it is that I've become. I'm a Jewish kid from Chicago, but without Anton Chekhov, without Isaac Babel, without Eudora Welty, without Juan Rulfo, without John Edgar Wideman, without Gina Berriault, without Malamud, Gallant, and Dubus (the list goes on and on), I'm not sure I'd have any clue at all who I am. Yet even with them, some days, who the hell knows?

Am I Alone Here? was written amid the confusion of two particularly trying developments in Orner's life: his 2008 divorce, in the aftermath of which the essays that make up the book began to be written; and his father's 2014 death and the deterioration preceding it. The confusion of this latter development manifests itself strongly when, in his introduction, Orner articulates his sobering realization of the distinction between fiction and reality:

In the year or so after my father died, I found, for the first time in as long as I could remember, I couldn't write fiction. My father and I were never especially close, and not nearly as close as he'd wanted us to be. For years he used to call me. Three, four, five times a day, he'd call and he'd call. I'd never pick up. But somehow this not being close, at least as far as I was concerned, was a form of being close. It helped define my precarious existence. There was always this gap between us. Within the gap: a kind of love. Now there's no gap, nothing … . His sudden nonexistence left me with a blank I had no idea how to fill. Since it is my job to obliterate blankness ...

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