In the title story of Michael Overa's debut collection The Filled in Spaces, Edna finds her reality thrown out of whack by an "orphaned dream" that doesn't belong to her. She often struggles to recall her own dreams, but her recollections of this dream are so unsettling that she becomes certain not only that this new dream belongs to someone else, but also that it must be returned to its true dreamer. So that's exactly what she sets out to do.While the surreality of this tale is unique among the eleven stories that surround it, Edna's existential anxiety makes her fine company for every character in the book, even more so in how her quest then becomes weighed down by the quotidian. When she first startles awake from the lost dream, "her threadbare t-shirt adheres to her skin" as she pours herself a glass of water in a kitchen cluttered with dirty dishes and old shopping lists; later, wandering the aisles of Dollar Store -- that most artificial venue of faux frugality -- she waves away a store employee because if she needs any help at all, then it's not "the type of help that could be offered." Hers is a war that can only be waged alone.In this way, one of the pleasures of reading Overa's collection is seeing his characters fight against their worst selves, even as they are tripped up again and again by their mistakes.
In "Oxygen," a young man's grief over the death of a close friend makes it impossible for him to reciprocate the care his new girlfriend offers; similarly, the short-order cook fired from his job at the beginning of "Evidence of Life" pushes his luck from bad to worse when he ends a night of heavy drinking by relieving himself on the hood of a police car.But though these characters are often dashed against the rocks by inescapable tediums and societal norms, there is dignity, and even hope, in how Overa twists their fates. <
Nowhere is this more evident than the collection's first story, "Fix" -- a tale of two junkies, Loner and Dee, finding love among the ruins. Initially bonding over a shared cigarette, just minutes later they team together to mug a frat boy for his wallet and leather jacket. They turn this windfall into a stash of heroin, and the days and weeks that follow offer moments of both love and horror, as when shortly after Dee and Loner adopt a dog, they hear that a friend has Died from an overdose. They accept such injustices with blasé honesty -- death is part of the rugged lifepath their choices have set them upon -- yet that same comfort in societal shadows is what makes them incapable of admitting just precious their relationship is, and how essential to their survival.It's only later, when their connection is irrevocably severed, that Loner and Dee recognize the despair that surrounds them and the even deeper despair that lives within them. Loner's fury at this moment, a fury he has concealed even from himself, encompasses not only a weary rage at the fragility of love, but also an impotent fear of any world that could so easily destroy his happiness. Even this anguished burst, however, is tempered by the happier memories that will always stay with Loner, softening the denouement into tragedy instead of despondence.
Every story in the collection skillfully mines these rich intricacies except, unexpectedly, my personal favorite story, "Off the Tracks." Where other stories build to disaster, or perhaps rebuild in disaster's aftermath, only "Off the Tracks" starts with horror and descends into dread, creating a story in shades of black. "The car jerked like we'd gone over a pothole," it begins, but the two brothers in the car soon realize they've run over a cat, maiming it; when the older brother gives the creature a merciful death, the violent act reveals a darkness in both their hearts.
In most of Overa's stories, witnessing such misery might lessen the brothers' differences and bring them closer together, but this time one brother responds with revulsion, the other with audacious curiosity. It's a difference that ultimately splinters their relationship unforgivably and with chilling results.This unwillingness to turn away from darkness is central to the collection's success, giving these stories powerful truths about transcending the savage ordinariness that leads us to ennui.
Overa's characters are relatable and deserving of love, even as they confound and betray one another. Although these stories depict tough situations, the book's ultimate message seems to be a variation on E.M. Forster's famous wisdom: only connect -- or we'll never survive our own selves.
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