Ives, Lucy. Cosmogony: Stories. Soft Skull, New York, 2022. F; 4/22.
Cosmogony denotes scientific theories about the origin of the universe, particularly the solar system. Ms. Ives wrote a great story I read a while ago that led me to read her novel Impossible Views of the World which I found good but not great. Writers normally don’t just jump from a very good short story or two straight to a blockbuster novel (why didn’t Alice Munro write one?) and it’s also usual that really good short story writers do collections that include one or two (or more) terrific stories along with one or two ringers. That’s the situation here, but to be clear I think the title story is the best of this collection by quite a bit and as good as any short fiction I’ve read in quite a long time. So I’m not going to bother with any of the others except to tell you that Guy was the worst. But here’s what I thought of Cosmogony, the title story.
Deadpan is an Ives trademark. Others do this too (Michael Redhill and Andre Alexis are two Canadians, but also wonderful David Wallace), and casually tossing out freefall into dramatic depth and life-changing emotion as something ordinary has to be one of the most charming things a fiction writer can do.
Our girl narrator has a friend who’s dating a demon. The demon is timeless, omniscient, foul-smelling and insulting. And he has a secret name by which he is known to others of his kind which turns out to be 27 (it isn’t pointed out but that’s three cubed). Narrator and her girlfriend had
always known about demons. They were the necessary, baleful entities that stood on the porches of history, holding up the roofs of civilization with their knotted backs. They were the reason that the past was visible to us at all.
Here we have maybe a reverse deadpan: how come this ordinary girl knows and talks about balefulness and knotted backs let alone the porches of history and roofs of civilization? Why does there have to be something terrifying making the past visible to us? This is an inscrutable poetic statement about something enormously metaphysical from the mouth of someone blasé about supernatural creatures, pitched as a colloquial expository sentence. For all the world these two girls are living their twenty-something dating lives but at the same time are fooling around with and obviously know something about what “one had to assume (was) eternal damnation.” Ives can’t resist stretching the enigma a bit further with a paragraph or two of ironic math where relationships boil down to an equation.
Narrator fresh out of the supermarket with “21” ‘s bad breath still in her nose meets Eric, a computer guy who lives in a “so-so apartment”. They begin a superficially straightforward romance which just could turn into a business-as-usual marriage with children, shared enterprise, life commitment. They look like they’re doing what normal girls and boys at that stage of their lives do like they’re supposed to (doing it come-what-may on the wings of their boundless energy). But Ives is letting on that such deadpan series’ of events just normally include something monstrously significant.
Eric “step(s) out of an open window” and she never sees him again. He’s the devil and the angel either walking off to work through a french door or disappearing a bit more dramatically off the thirteenth floor. And bless narrator’s heart although Eric “definitely put one over on” her she’s “told by numerous acquaintances that (she’s) looking pretty good”. Does her hair and off to work as if nothing harmful or even unusual has happened.
How are we to understand all this, writ big in the language of religion and mathematics in ordinary people’s lives? This is a story, a yarn. And like the best of anything like that we can deconstruct and understand it all sorts of ways. But while we are doing that and without our particularly knowing it there’s been a change in our experience. I mentioned this in a critique of short stories by Sam Shepard and my take on it is nothing new. Bad art is just junk: political, badly made, offensive. Good art represents beautifully so it opens the eyes of the beholder. But great art is magnificent independent of its referents. What does it “stand for”?
This story for me does that. I’d score the title story at least in the mid-nines both for style and whatever the “content” really is. The collection not quite so much. If you can get ahold of the title story independent of the collection I think you’ll have the best of both worlds.