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Impossible to keep your hands clean

A little boy falls into a hole and dies. Years later, his friend can’t remember whether he stood idly by as it happened, or if maybe he pushed his friend, or sent him down the hole on a dare. That is the premise and the question of Hole, the first story in Andrew Porter’s collection The Theory of Light and Matter (2008). Given the characters in the stories that follow, it seems most likely that the little boy in Hole merely watched and did nothing as his friend clambered down never to come up again. For while none of the characters in The Theory of Light and Matter are malicious – rather the contrary: they usually mean well – they do find themselves complicit in cruel situations all the time.

Take the little boy in Coyotes, who leads his manic-depressive father to the legal office where his mother works, not knowing that the confrontation between his parents will turn violent. Or the two boys in Departure, who don’t partake in the beating up of an Amish boy in their local diner, but who don’t exactly interfere, either. That awful truth – that it’s impossible to keep your hands clean despite none but the best intentions – is the thread with which Porter weaves a web of beautiful, quiet stories.

The Theory of Light and Matter is a small book – you can commence and finish reading it in one day – with only ten stories and lots of white on the pages. The stories are set in the contemporary United States, from the East Coast to the Mid-West and back again. The tone is somber; the narrators are often young, male, and a bit sad. Like the boy in Connecticut, who discovers that his mother is having a love affair with their female neighbor, and ends up feeling not anger or shame but merely pity. Or the adolescent man in Storms, whose crazy sister dominates the family and ruins the family holiday: he never stops defending her, understanding her, attempting to console her – none of it to any avail.

The passivity of the characters and the stillness of Porter’s prose make The Theory of Light and Matter a sobering read. But there is beauty in the silence, in the defeat, in the hopeless hope. Because the characters are dreamy and likeable – for they are good, despite their constant failures, despite their inherent cruelty. To show that one can be both at the same time – mean and good, destructive and healing – to demonstrate that in fact one must be both at the same time: that is the feat Porter accomplishes in the collection of stories, and he accomplishes it remarkably well.

 

Lynn Berger

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