Our Story Begins by Tobias Wolff

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Our Story Begins by Tobias Wolff

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Category: Short Stories
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Paul Harrop
Reviewed by Paul Harrop
Summary: Deceptively simple stories revealing complex truths about painfully compromised characters. A superbly-written collection from a genius of the form. Better savoured individually rather than in one sitting.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 400 Date: August 2008
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing PLC
ISBN: 978-0747597278

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Tobias Wolff's short stories offer few easy solutions. His troubled characters face choices they are ill-equipped to make. You do not go to Wolff for a satisfying, tidy tale, neatly wrapped, or for an entertaining twist.

What Wolff does give you is a sense of how contingent, how compromised, most of our lives are, and how inadequate most of us are, faced with a life-changing decision. So this collection of 21 classic Wolff short stories, with 10 new ones is far from comforting. Their cumulative effect is bleak in the extreme.

The typical Wolff tale is set in a wintery landscape; many of his characters have (like him) a military background. Often their inadequacies are brought into focus against another contrasting personality. The choices they face are rarely clear-cut, and the stories fade, rather than end, giving you a sense of having been granted a brief glimpse into real, tangled lives.

Tellingly, the most unambiguous moral choice in his collection is given to another person's character. In the story-within-a-story, The Night in Question, Wolff's character recounts a sermon in which a man faces the dilemma between rescuing his son and saving the lives of a train full of passengers. A train full of Wolff characters, it transpires:

...Those who with open eyes sleepwalk through their days, neither doing evil nor resisting it, like soldiers who lie down as if dead and will not join the battle.

These people are often aware of their failings but lack the strength to rise above them. One character even causes his own obituary to be published as if to prove that he has lived at all. Wolff shows us such ineffective and ineffectual individuals as they struggle to do, or even to comprehend, the right thing. His unpitying eye starkly exposes their failings. He rarely judges, but when he does, he often finds them lacking.

His taut prose is similarly merciless, capable of skewering a person and a life in a few perfectly-chosen words. He can establish a character and a relationship in a brief sentence like My wife is sitting on the edge of my bed, shaking me. The stories are of similar length (around 10 to 20 pages). Most are relatively conventional in their telling, with only a few experiments in form, like the impressionistic Lady's Dream or Her Dog where a widowed man imagines a conversation with his wife's pet.

The stories reminded me of Wolff's fellow American writer Richard Yates, who also placed finely drawn characters in similar psychological and geographical landscapes: people mired in nagging regrets, and facing messy, unnecessary deaths caused by stupid misunderstandings.

Maybe it's wrong to read a full collection like this back-to-back. Taken individually, in a magazine, or in an anthology with other writers, a Wolff story would undoubtedly be a bracing, thoughtful, if disconcerting experience. Collectively, they can be unrelenting in their melancholy, and are probably not for everyone. But if you are prepared for an unflinching dissection of human weakness and folly, this is the work of a master anatomist.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

If this book appeals to you then you might enjoy Armageddon in Retrospect by Kurt Vonnegut although here at The Bookbag we found it rather disappointing.

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Buy Our Story Begins by Tobias Wolff at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Our Story Begins by Tobias Wolff at Amazon.co.uk Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
Buy Our Story Begins by Tobias Wolff at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Our Story Begins by Tobias Wolff at Amazon.com.


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