How to Breathe Underwater. Julie Orringer.

Orringer, Julie. How to Breathe Underwater. Vintage, New York, 2003. F;7/17.

Another great collection of short stories. This author paints chaotic canvases that command attention to their primary emotional colours. Family conflict, disorder, guilt, revenge, spiritual responsibility, and sly threats are real to everyone, and here they come straight at us so we can’t – don’t want to – ignore them. I was reminded of Julia Elliott.

(Plot alerts scatter in the following.)

A girl who barely escaped drowning in a car driven into water is blamed by her brother for the drowning of his girlfriend, the driver. Another girl who wishes the death of her premature brother sears herself with guilt when he dies. Two young Jewish girls catch a boy hiding an erotic book and one of them blackmails him into romantic entanglement. Another girl drags her younger recently deflowered friend off in a car to witness her marriage to an older boy who was the one who had sex with the other girl, bare emotion feeding on cheap gaudy falsehood. A sister who has lapsed into addiction does drugs and loses track of her three-year-old niece entrusted to her at busy Fisherman’s Wharf. A dying woman tries to relive an old affair while her daughter has to fight off arrogant awkward sex advances by his teenage boys.

I must be blind in at least one inner eye, because someone who writes her way successfully through plot events like those wouldn’t be ending many of her stories awkwardly, as it seemed to me she did. The angry brother whose girlfriend died just reconciles. The erotic book is quietly dumped in a murky lake and disappears. The false fiancé and her friend make up after the friend threatens the young liar boyfriend with his gun.

Sometimes fictional events seem real. It’s the art gallery experience I guess. Instead of saying to myself “this is about religious coming-of-age” and filing it away, I experience waking up to moral responsibility for the first time as if it was happening to me. Orringer, whatever her strange endings are all about, does that directly (or quickly) enough that I don’t have time to slip into abstraction which reliably washes out the red blue and yellow of imagination’s experience. Reading these stories is like living life instead of watching it go by.

Good reason to keep reading fiction. 9.2/9.4.

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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