OCTOBER 6, 2020
DURING THE 19TH CENTURY, a jeweler’s engraver named William H. Mumler photographed himself and found that a second figure had appeared next to him in the image during development of the plate. The double exposure was — so he claimed — an apparition of his cousin. He built a “spirit photography” business in order to capitalize on double exposure images, and the images seemed to serve as verification that a person’s immaterial form could be captured. The images of spirits were indistinct and ghostly and ambiguous. They looked like hauntings. Those who’d lost their loved ones in the Civil War were persuaded. Eventually, Mumler was exposed as a fraud and prosecuted. However, spirit photography retained its ghostly visual power through the early 20th century, and its technique was adopted by spiritualists and filmmakers. Calling to mind spirit photographs, Laura van den Berg’s sixth book, the short story collection I Hold a Wolf by the Ears, is deeply death-haunted.
In the 11 stories of the collection, characters are psychologically undone, but the source of their disturbance is not always clear. These are characters working in a surreal gig economy, making use of their talents for grief to impersonate second wives and work customers on fetish hotlines. These are sisters who become each other, who switch places, who long to be anywhere other than in their own bodies. Doubles proliferate and linger on as traces in each other. Secret griefs come spilling forth. Empirical reality itself becomes inadequate to capture the force of the loss. These are stories about what happens when “[t]hat border between magic and annihilation” is crossed.
Certain motifs recurred in van den Berg’s previous story collections and, in certain instances, made their way into her novels Find Me and The Third Hotel as well: photography, private investigators, sisters, masks. These stories took on recognizable story shapes, their emotional tremors and shifts were clear. Her latest collection also features protagonists who are fundamentally alone and lonely, but the shapes of these stories are more astonishing and diffuse, feeling less like constructed artwork and closer to found objects. There’s a freedom in these stories, the sense that the story doesn’t belong only to the apparent protagonist. Instead, in each story in I Hold a Wolf by the Ears, lives unfold unseen, and their pointed absence, their seemingly peripheral nature, the way in which devastating emotions occur offstage yet retain weight, endows the stories with an edgy, unsettling quality. Their strange power grows out of a bold refusal to decipher or assign an explanation to the pieces that are missing. Paradoxically, in the refusal of explanation, what never happened or what might have happened in a different way gains as much importance as what does, simply through allusions to what is sensory and tangible.
For instance, “Last Night,” the first story in the collection, begins “I want to tell you about the night I got hit by a train and died. The thing is — it never happened. This was many years ago.” The narrator recollects being treated for 10 months at a facility in central Florida after trying to kill herself at age 17. On the last night before her release, she and her two roommates talked an orderly into letting them leave the facility, and she acknowledges the implausibility of the factual story: “[I]t really did happen like that, he really did let us go, and this is the problem with translating experience into fiction, the way certain truths read like lies.” They go to the train tracks. A roommate remarks, “People who commit suicide by train look like they’re praying[.] […] The way they kneel down and lay their heads on the tracks.” The story weaves the narrator’s psychological struggles, which persist to this day, with the long-ago night on the tracks. Throughout, van den Berg plays with and collapses time so that past and future huddle together. This blurring calls into question time itself as a relevant marker: if the past is always present, how can we then call it past?
What cannot be verified about the past and its relationship to the present is intrinsic to interpreting “The Pitch” as well. After his father dies, an illustrator’s husband shows her a childhood photo in which he’s standing in the woods. In the background of the photo, she notices a boy shimmying up a tree. When she asks her husband who the boy is, he denies there’s a boy in the tree and says it’s a vine wrapped around the trunk of the tree, “bleached and distorted by exposure.” The woman thinks, “That may have been the story he was intent on telling himself, but I wasn’t about to let it infect me. I didn’t yet understand that refusing one kind of narrative could activate another.” Whatever story happened and remains unspoken weighs on the husband, and he sets the photograph on fire before burying the ashes in the backyard. Afterward, the marriage is altered; the illustrator avoids her husband, finding he has an “aura of menace.” She reads about spirit photography but cannot understand her husband’s inability to see the boy in the tree. Coming to believe the husband had done something to the boy, she tries to force him to see things her way.
In some cases, the lives of others, glimpsed only in half-light by the narrators of these stories, multiply the stories’ questions but no answers are provided. Those whose story it isn’t still skulk around each story, apparitions whose existence we cannot quite count on or draw conclusion from. They are the people next to the narrators, people who are heard or remembered but unseen, and sometimes they are doubles or inverse images. Grieving neighbors themselves are made part and parcel of the landscape, shaping the narrators’ experiences. This is perhaps most evident in the story “Slumberland,” in which a photographer drives around at night to take photographs because she can’t stand the sound of her neighbor wailing at night. The source of the narrator’s own grief is merely evoked — the death of someone whose particulars are left enshrouded in mystery. Meanwhile, the neighbor runs a business in which she takes calls for a fetish hotline that caters to people with dacryphilia, those who are aroused by crying.
Similarly, in “Lizards,” a story about a husband and wife who disagree on how to react to allegations of sexual assault made against a judge, there is the sense that the world in which these characters grieve is larger than the conflict around which the story revolves. While a husband believes in giving a man accused of sexual harassment the benefit of the doubt, his wife does not. He gives her a can of drugged sparkling water, obtained from a neighbor, to stop her from complaining, from being “too much.” Meanwhile, the wife thinks:
Also if she’s out past a certain hour, she hears the same neighbor weeping in her apartment. It sounds like the neighbor is having a nervous breakdown in there, night after night. Sometimes she lingers by the door and listens for a minute, just to keep her own life in perspective.
Here, the lives of others develop a mysterious weight that only intensifies the demented subterfuge occurring within the couple’s marriage.
Perhaps the most extreme form of seeking to experience the phenomenon of another’s life, what it feels like to be another, is to assume the other’s identity. In the title story “I Hold a Wolf by the Ears,” Margot assumes her sister’s identity while in Italy and finds herself having accidental sex with a man who mistakes her for her sister. The sister goes missing in Rome, and Margot’s passport does, too. Margot’s doubling is intensified by surrounding imagery, including faceless mannequins. In the village center, Margot sees a marzipan lamb that is lifelike. Filippo, the man who works behind the front desk at the hotel “tells her it is not enough for the lamb to look real — it must look at once like a real lamb and like something sprung from a dream. It must have a certain aura. That was what separated the marzipan amateurs from the masters, the ability to create the right aura.”
In the stories of I Hold a Wolf by the Ears, aura develops as much through an almost spiritual weight assigned to certain ordinary objects as it does according to what happens or doesn’t happen in the story. In “Volcano House,” for instance, a woman, whose sister is in a coma after being shot, looks at her sister’s CT scan and notes “the bullet looks like a tiny egg trapped in her skull.” The narrator wonders “what if some kind of transference is occurring and the closer my sister gets to becoming a ghost, the more I turn into something solid, something real.” Similarly, in The Third Hotel the ordinary object turned uncanny is a fingernail found in a drawer; dread coalesces around it. Narrators in this collection feel they have stones in their mouths, reminiscent of a character on her honeymoon in van den Berg’s story “I Looked for You, I Called Your Name” (The Isle of Youth) who packs her mouth with “fistfuls of damp sand.”
Language itself is used to shake the reader, to take these stories beyond any sort of prefabricated shape into a more dangerous realm of ghosts and intangible dangers. There are gaps and jumps in the language, flexible places where a reader can creep in and imaginatively develop their own beliefs about what happened. The text of I Hold a Wolf by the Ears feels more flexible than in van den Berg’s prior books, with the notable exception of The Third Hotel, which also plunges into grief, its reality along with its unmooring surrealism. Are we haunted by these stories or are we, as readers, haunting them?
Yet, a subtly biting humor and irony threads through the collection, complicating and knifing through what might be taken as tragedy. In the title story, for instance, the narrator is characterized: “Margot has always wanted to be the kind of person who can become too distraught to eat, but the truth is funerals make her hungry.” In “Slumberland,” a photographer has moved from wedding photography to pet portraiture because “[t]here was a surprising amount of money to be made in photographing German Shepherds in bow ties. Plus no one ruins their life by getting a dog.”
Van den Berg exploits the tension between what is experienced and what emotions can make us believe to astonishing effects. In the story “Cult of Mary,” a tour guide in Italy says, “Remember that history is not only about what happened […] but also about what those in power want you to think happened.” The story is ostensibly about a daughter taking her mother, who has had a stroke, on a tour. However, the most memorable thread of the story centers on a man who makes jokes about prostitutes while apparently grieving a dead wife. Grief, in particular, can fool us, resisting both the language that might capture it and any efforts to banish it.
Grieving people, left behind, wanted to believe their loved ones could take material form in spirit photographs. But even when we’re given a photograph or a recording, we cling to our beliefs over our senses, over what is verifiable. On the other hand, a photograph that ratifies and confirms our deepest, most painful beliefs — a spirit photograph that says what we have lost remains with us no matter what, thereby confirming how palpable grief feels to us — retains a distinct power. Van den Berg is one of our most ingenious bards of the unsayable. I Hold a Wolf by the Ears carries forward the DNA of her other books, but it’s her best yet. With this collection, she invents a grammar to reconstitute the unease that flows beneath the surfaces of ordinary, mundane America — the exquisitely off-kilter, the ghost in the mirror.