I knew the second Katka saw any of this onstage it would all be over, but I couldn't think about that now. Because for this moment Daniela looked as if she believed every word. Or probably just wanted to badly enough. Her gaze was fixed and wide, as if she were watching television. I couldn't tell which of us had scooted closer or if we'd done it simultaneously. But she was so near our elbows were almost touching, and as I continued to talk, I wondered if any of what I was saying would begin to feel like the truth. It didn't yet, but I was just getting started. (from "The Quietest Man")From the time I first heard about her debut collection on The Millions' The Great 2014 Book Preview back in January, I have been eager to read recent National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 author Molly Antopol's stories. The short description provided in the link above made me curious about how a relatively young writer would go about exploring those "characters lost in the labyrinth of history." What I discovered is that Antopol is indeed a rising talent, one whose stories contain fascinating characters placed in untenable situations. Sometimes, these tales work wonderfully and, at worst, they merely explore already trodden ground. But on the whole, The UnAmericans may be one of the strongest collections in a 2014 publishing year that has seen several excellent story collections (two of which I'll be reviewing later this week).
The UnAmericans is a themed collection, revolving around the identity issues of those who consider themselves (or in a few, more sinister cases are considered to be such) to be "un-American." Whether the stories revolve around characters who live outside the US, in places like Belarus, Ukraine, or Israel or if they are immigrants to the US, each of the eight stories focuses on aspects of life or character that set these characters apart from their times. Although there are times that Antopol comes close to repeating motifs explored in previous tales, for the most part, reading each of her stories led to a sense of reverie, albeit not a "pleasant" one.
Antopol's characters are often simultaneously active and passive in relation to their environs. Some, like the narrator for the first story, "The Old World," find themselves caught in the confusion of the times, wondering if the world of which they were so certain was slipping past them. Others, like the father in "The Quietest Man," quoted above, seek to manipulate personal (and perhaps by extension cultural) history in order to present a desired narrative for others. Yet ultimately there is this sense of each of them wallowing in a mire of the past and conflicted futures.
In the hands of lesser writers, this could lead to a narrative morass from which the reader might have to struggle mightily in order to escape. Antopol for the most part manages to establish narrative bridges that enable the reader to focus more on the individual characters in relation to their plights and not so much on the murky plights themselves. Sometimes she achieves this through the establishment of strong personalities whose force of will manages to captivate the reader. Other times, it is just the simple beauty of her prose, the mixing of creative metaphors with direct, emotionally raw and honest discourse that carries the stories to fitting, if not always fulfilling, conclusions.
While there are occasions where the narratives appear to be straining to contain the disparate elements within them, on the whole The UnAmericans is a powerful collection whose weaknesses mostly can be excused as those of a newer writer finding her voice and whose strengths will make readers eager to read her next work, whether it be a novel or another story collection. Certainly a writer worth paying attention to in the future.