Distance No Object
Reviewed by Lissa Richardson, Fri., Oct. 22, 1999
Distance No Object: Storiesby Gloria Frym
City Lights Books, $10.95 paper
In the first story of Gloria Frym's new collection, the narrator and her husband hold each other tightly in a movie theatre "for one of the last times." They have just watched the Russian movie Burnt by the Sun, and the husband begins to cry. The narrator says, "You could say that many years of knowing each other -- the last few of which were a lot like the death of international socialism and the parallel meltdown of the Soviet Union and all that it once mythically promised -- you could say that the death of our ideals left us open to this now exceptional display of emotions." This opening speaks to the entirety of Frym's intimate and confrontational collection: An end to idealism makes way for emotional self-discovery. Like learning to walk, navigating the nuances of this discovery is still wobbly, unsure of itself, and always trying again. The characters learn, as does the reader.
Frym's narrators are, for the most part, aging leftist intellectuals who reflect the disintegration of their ideology and the place they live in, the idealist's paradise, Berkeley, Calif. They know times have changed since Vietnam. They know political philosophy has changed since the Russian Revolution. Yet they don't quite know how to maneuver in this new world.
In one story, a woman longs for homeless people to take shelter in the abandoned house next door. She wants that house to be "useful," but she also recognizes that the home has only caused strife -- not solved problems -- for the people who have lived in it. In another story, a couple (the narrative voice an appropriately collective "we") breaks its vow to be nothing like its own sets of parents. They lose patience and become "tall interlocutors" toward their child and her friend. In another, a woman suffers from confusion when a policeman asks her if she deserves a speeding ticket. Since the policeman admires her for her social role -- she's a professor and writer -- he gives her the option to choose not to be punished: "I did not like such options, I did not like having to choose," she says. "I grew up in a world of protest -- where did that go? Where was the hard edge of pompous authority to butt up against?" Yet another actually exclaims, "How miraculous late-capitalist technology!"
These leftists have been bowled over by choices that have less to do with personal freedoms than personal satisfaction. Over time, they have been forced to give up things. On the surface, this should be a welcome addition to anti-materialistic ideology, except that the "things" lost are husbands and friends, and in the losing of them, one realizes paradoxically that even these things aren't worth as much as one might think.
It is easy to think each narrator is Frym herself parading into her own work. Gloria Frym teaches poetics at the New College of California, whose motto is "Education and Social Change for a Just, Sacred and Sustainable World." The stories' concerns are possibly her own. As "distance" is "no object," Frym manipulates point of view in her stories. Sometimes the narration is very distant from the subjects, merely observing the characters as they struggle and learn, and at other times bringing the reader in to some very personal experiences of pain, love, or bold opinion. She clearly plays, rolling through language and image with postmodern pleasure. Yet sometimes her third-person stories feel very measured and controlled, showing her reverence for great modernist storytellers like Chekhov or Henry James. This clash of conventions creates a collection that is possibly ahead of its time while it masquerades as an elegy for an end to an era.