Feb/Mar 2009

The Theory of Light and Matter

David Haglund


Hole, the opening story in Andrew Porters debut collection, The Theory of Light and Matter, draws a blueprint for the nine that follow: A young man looks back on his suburban childhood, recalling the strange hole in his neighbors driveway and the day, a decade before, his friend climbed into it and died. The books other narrators struggle with the metaphoric gaps that manifest themselves in otherwise ordinary lives. “As he entered me for the first time, a woman says about her soon-to-be fiancť, it seemed that I had just opened up a hole in my life. A fathers decision to leave home had left a hole in our lives, says a boy, though we did not talk about that hole.

These various chasms are created by love affairs abruptly ended, fathers lost to mental illness, and a variety of common sins, mostly of omission. A husband and wife compensate for childlessness by hosting a foreign-exchange student and find themselves unprepared for the parenting required. A man considers the rift between himself and his older brother, which opened the night his brother may have raped a girl who passed out at a party. In “Departure,” one of the collection’s better stories, a twenty-something looks back on his tentative, unconsummated romance with an Amish girl and the tensions between her community and his.

The tales share a voice as well. Each is narrated in the first person, but all the narrators speak in the same semiformal style: “In the end, I lay in his bed for almost two hours. . . . [T]he room grew dark and I realized that he would not be coming back. I realized that he had probably gone to his wife’s house to have dinner and that he would probably spend the night there as well. Slowly, I sat up in his bed and got dressed, knowing that I would never do anything like this again.” Porters unadorned prose is pleasingly readable but seems more the author’s voice than his characters’. (This is especially true of the heavy-handed closing epiphanies.) The stories may have been better served by third-person narration, which would have allowed for more lyric notes and the occasional satiric bite. “Storms,” for instance, which relates the “slow and steady demise” of a well-to-do family outside Philadelphia, calls for the latter, given the childishness of its characters and the pettiness of their resentments.

Most of Porter’s protagonists, however, are sympathetic, their moral lapses rooted in passivity: Faced with ethically complicated situations, they fail to take action, letting chance and other people dictate the course of events. As one character observes, “When something seems inevitable you can either choose to accept it, or you can be strong and try to fight it. And I wasn’t in the right state of mind to be strong.”

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