Erin Stalcup, And Yet It Moves, Indiana University Press, 2016
Reviewed by JoAnna Novak
How do we respond to the unseen forces on whose support and permanence we routinely, unblinkingly, sometimes blindly depend? This question is central to Erin Stalcup's debut, And Yet It Moves, a short story collection that gives readers access to a wide-ranging cast of characters, heroes sung and unsung: Einstein, Tesla, your favorite Craigslist stars, ghostwriters, professors, elevator operators, keeners. Often, Stalcup succeeds at making those invisible visible (or, in the case of Einstein, the invisible realms of the hypervisible) by reminding readers of the inherent humanity in persons, objects, places, animals, or—yes—natural phenomena. The process sounds gentler than it is.
"He yelled himself into me" (2), writes Stalcup in "Gravity," the collection's first story, in which "gravity had gone away everywhere" (4). Disorder in the universe: that's what it takes to fall in love, Stalcup seems to suggest, though even a world where you and your flame can float to the ceiling doesn't offer any forever-and-always guarantees. "He doesn't know how to keep me," the narrator of "Gravity" says of the lover. Yes: she is the one leaving. And yes: she prizes her ability to be kept. It is our own self-concept that influences relationships, Stalcup demonstrates: humanity and dignity and decency are not contingent upon company.
Again and again, these stories show the imperfection of human connection, that invisible and yet visible forces at work in our lives. Are we beholden to anyone or thing besides ourselves? I'm not talking about souls, per se, but interiors, points-of-view: we all have those. While love and intimacy is sought and lost, envisioned and never realized (see "Brightest Corners," comprised of a sequence of Craigslist Missed Connections postings), the characters in And Yet It Moves announce the fact that they are not wholly governed by commitments to other people. In the case of "Brightest Corners," for instance, repeated postings from a character who longs to find the dreamy Brooklynite she met at Ikea highlight the odd, blasé capriciousness of the lonesome: "'I do need a new bedspread, but that one doesn't match anything else I own. I mostly just came here because I was curious. I've never been to Ikea'" (119). That, in the above sentence, in love might be substituted with to Ikea is an accurate measure of this unnamed character's fidelity to her own needs and concerns. The primacy of her curiosity dims the mood of the story, tinying the world and reminding readers how isolating it is to be enamored.
Given that Stalcup's fiction is governed by empathy—indeed, the narrative voice practically insists on eliciting concern and compassion for its disparate characters—I was confused by the times when, as in "In the Heart of the Heart of the Empire," the tone suggests a disdain for the protagonist:
It's the harshness of diction—"shit"—and the clipped syntax—"though, she'd be awake anyway"—that surlies the narrative voice, which, in other sections of this story migrates into this teacher's first-person perspective. Yet, I'll admit, despite my bristling, I would be interested to see what might happen if Stalcup decides to vitriolify her fiction in the future.
Often, the prose in And Yet It Moves rocks and sways with a slurry, splicey syntax; other times, anaphora governs entire paragraphs. These affectations accumulate. The book is subject to a consistent rhythm, one where the plots—despite their containing deaths and fucks—never spike or plummet as one might desire. When surprises come, they come quick—and they're less twists than kinks in circumstance. Hypochondriac Lacey of "With Strangers" is also a stripper; Maxwell Jackson's profession as a ghostwriter finds him penning not celebrity tell-alls but suicide notes.
Maybe searching for chaos is futile. Unless an author creates a world in which it is nonexistent, gravity is dependable. (Stalcup makes this explicit in "Why Things Fall": "Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing"(164).) The mind, too, when it is active, is dependable: perhaps that is law for these characters. In "All Those Stairs," the novella that concludes the collection, an elevator operator named Cerise works an eight-hour shift before she is able to come home to see her newly-paroled son. Largely confined to an elevator cell, Cerise's thoughts about her life and her habits propel the narrative forward. She muses, at one juncture: "I wonder about my mind, if I will lose parts of it. And if I have how would I know?" (201).
In The Mezzanine, Nicholson Baker proved that not taking the stairs can bear much narrative fruit, and Stalcup confirms his findings. Here, in nearly eighty pages, is a life, which turns out to be, with the rest of the world removed, in essence, a mind. Yes, Cerise's hefty figure is often mentioned; indeed, her desire to eat well is mentioned. But those corporeal details are of little consequence; what the novella reminds the reader is how, as Stalcup writes in "In the Heart of the Heart of the Empire," consciousness "is layered: we all live on top of each other, and under" (13).