Refresh, Refresh: Stories
Graywolf Press, 2007
249 pp., 15.0
The Quiet Girl: A Novel
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007
424 pp., 27.94
Reviewed by Elissa Elliott
Making Sense of a Broken World
One of my pet peeves is a short story lacking an ending, which is why I am one of the few who cannot read another Alice Munro story. Fortunately, this is not the case with Benjamin Percy's second story collection Refresh, Refresh, where endings abound—maybe not happy ones, but ones that fit the story being told.
By far, the title story is my favorite, as it has been for many people. It won Paris Review's Plimpton Prize and the 2006 Pushcart Prize in fiction, and was included in novelist Ann Patchett's selection of The Best American Short Stories 2006. Recently, we've seen a rash of stories touching in some way on the war in Iraq, but this is the first time I've read one that has engaged me from start to finish. "Refresh, Refresh" follows two young, rough–and–tumble boys' efforts to make sense of their world after their fathers have been sent to Iraq. They do it in the only way that they know how—boxing to exhaustion in the backyard, playing a hunting prank on football players, and pummeling the recruitment officer before he can declare whose father it is who has died. With their computer mouses, they click refresh, refresh, to see if, possibly—just maybe—their fathers have replied to their emails, so the boys can know their dads are still alive.
All of Percy's protagonists are male, and all experience pain, loss, loneliness, and confusion. A young husband navigates the emotional aftermath of a miscarriage; an adult son sees his father keen at the loss of his dog; a father kills his daughter's abusive boyfriend; an elderly brother plots the death of his brother because he's desired his wife all these years; a selfish husband meets his comeuppance in the middle of a deadly storm; and a son grieves over his father's abrupt disappearance.
The stories are dark and sometimes violent, but I don't see any other way to have written them. When such characters come to you and whisper in your ear, you have to snap to attention. You have to portray them with brutal honesty, without skipping the uncomfortable or unsavory parts. These characters do have something wickedly dismal about them, but nothing that should be foreign to any of us, if we are percipient about our own interior lives.
And it's another's interior life—that of Kasper Krone, the out–of–work, once famous clown—that the Danish novelist Peter Høeg writes about in his new book, The Quiet Girl, translated by Nadia Christensen.
If you've read Høeg's best–known novel, the internationally bestselling Smilla's Sense of Snow, you may be struck as I was by the similarities between the two books. Indeed, a one–sentence summary of both might read: Social misfit, using the help of an estranged father, attempts to rescue a helpless child from danger. Except that in Smilla's Sense of Snow, there seems to be a reason, a driving force, behind Smilla's need to solve the Inuit boy's murder. Here, in The Quiet Girl, it's unclear why Kasper Krone wants to save his nine–year–old former dance pupil from the clutches of her evil kidnappers.
Let me start at the beginning. After a childhood accident, Kasper acquires the uncanny ability to hear music with each person he encounters. For example, when he meets the girl's kidnappers, they have the sense of "D–minor, at its worst. As in Toccata and Fugue in D–Minor." Ostensibly, what drives Kasper to rescue the girl are two things: the girl has asked him to, in a covert meeting (this has its own set of problems, which I'll come to in a moment); and she possesses a silence about her, a peace that he wants and has never found. He is curious about this silence: "There are two types of silence … . There is the … silence behind prayer. The silence when one is close to the Divine … . And then there is the other silence. Hopelessly far from God."
I think Høeg was trying to write a postmodern thriller with a protagonist who plays against the expectations of the genre—a mystic who quotes Meister Eckhart and Kierkegaard and Catherine of Siena, a man who is searching for truth in highly unorthodox places. Høeg has done this, but not without making Kasper appear somewhat superficial. In fact, even his ex–girlfriend complains when Kasper gets too lofty: "That's borrowed. Stolen. Patchwork! … Your feelings have no depth … . You live and talk as if you're performing in the ring all the time." This suggests that the author is well aware of his protagonist's flaws—but that doesn't make Kasper any less irritating.
Another quibble: the narrative form Høeg chose, a form that he successfully executed in Smilla's Sense of Snow, merely confuses the reader of The Quiet Girl (this reader, anyway). He took a fairly plain story and jumbled it up, so that he could divulge plot twists at exactly the right moment. Many other storytellers (not just Høeg in that earlier success) have brought this off—the movie 21 Grams comes to mind—with spectacular results. Here's the difference. At the end, the reader (or the viewer) should be able to go back and linearly reconstruct the story without a hitch. I had difficulty doing this with The Quiet Girl. But that may say more about me than the book, and perhaps it will be rectified with a second read.
Now I come to the girl's in–person plea for help. Why doesn't Kasper help her then and there? True, she is with her kidnappers, but neither is armed. She claims they will hurt her mother, so instead, she slips him a cryptic note that he's supposed to decipher, piece by piece. It is what I would call a movie–moment, and it cannot carry the novel through to its surprise ending.
Still, for all his vexing mannerisms, I like Kasper. One of the nuns he encounters paraphrases Leibniz's Theodicy: "God is like a kitchen maid. When she has baked a loaf of bread, she has done her best. And that includes everything. The burned part of the crust too. Evil must also be from God somehow. Otherwise we couldn't be here." Kasper is shocked. "Impertinence is indispensable," he thinks, "[But] It doesn't belong in the Church. The Church should maintain the concert pitch."
It's all about making sense of a broken world. Always.
Elissa Elliott is a writer living in Rochester, Minnesota. She's at work on a novel about Eve.
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