By Zach Powers
BOA Editions, LTD, 2017
176 pages, $16
Reviewed by Michelle Junot
Zach Powers’ remarkable debut collection, Gravity Changes, will remind you why you learned to read in the first place. The book, winner of the BOA Short Fiction Prize, is composed of nineteen short stories that are equal parts magic, humor, cleverness, and heartbreak.
If you’re a fellow writer, however, proceed with caution and a healthy serving of gin. Power’s ability to sell you on his odd worlds and characters in a couple pages, will likely have you more envious than is probably altogether professional of you. It’ll be the friendly kind of “I hate you, but good job, and I hate you” jealousy, but the envy will be there all the same.
Reading through the collection, jumping from one world and then to the next, reminded me of Digory and Polly jumping in and out of the pond-worlds in C.S. Lewis’ The Magician’s Nephew. Each of Power’s stories presents a distinct set of characters, plot, narration perspective, and conflict. What joins the collection then — the “Woods between the Worlds” that supports the weight of all the ponds — is the stories’ exploration of the human condition and emotion, creating an empathy in the reader for characters even as unlovable as the Devil himself.
The book begins with the title story, “Gravity Changes,” a tale about a place and time when children were able to walk up the side of buildings and, eventually, fly:
“I’m no physicist, so I can’t explain it. Gravity just worked different back then. I walked on the ground, came to a wall, and kept walking right up to it. Oh, how I remember eaves and overhangs! Dangling upside down with the sidewalk overhead. We didn’t think of up and down, though. The ground was something different, we knew that, but down denotes the pull of gravity, and with the pull so uncertain we had no word to describe it.”
Gravity Changes isn’t really about children learning to fly. It’s about growing up, the world changing from one definition of “real” to a new, colder definition that includes death and longing and a weight that is never felt in childhood.
The explanation (or lack thereof) for this world is so simple in its shoulder-shrug logic that the reader has no choice but to just to go with it. The narrator is so convincingly real in his picture of memory, right down to his uncertainty of how this could have possibly worked, that you believe him. This may seem like a small thing, but it’s this storytelling style of simple language with complex plot points that consistently make the book work.
No matter how unrealistic the circumstances, Powers has an ability to drill down to the heart of something real within each of us and illuminate it in such a novel way, like in “Children in Alaska,” featuring a man married to a woman-sized lightbulb who doesn’t fit inside a car. It’s about the fragile nature of life and love, the tension between expectation and reality, the disconnect between the closest of lovers.
Or in “Cockpuncher,” Powers’s narrator moves into a foreign home while protecting (albeit maybe a little too passively) a glass jar:
“It’s trying to get out,” she said. “What’s in the jar?”
“It’s knowledge, or so my uncle told me.”
She walked around me and put her hand on top of mine.
“What’s there to know?” She gestured out the window. “Grass isn’t that green. No one aces calculus. Nobody knits anymore. There’s no such thing as love.”
The story reads like a modern take on Genesis with similar consequences of self-awareness and the inability to un-know what one now knows. It’s stories like this one that explore the profound disappointment of discovery, the loss of innocence, and the familiar ache of broken or missed relationships.
At times, the first-person narrators start to feel like the same, though each story is meant to be distinct. The internal monologues from “The Loneliness of Large Bathrooms,” “Single,” or “Joan Plays Power Ballads with Slightly Revised Lyrics,” are all largely preoccupied by observing a woman who holds some critical aspect of the man’s identity apart from him that we get only at the end of the story. Still, the circumstances in each story are so distinct and exploring identity and emotion in such a nuanced way, that the collection never feels repetitive.
Simply put, the collection is funny and poignant and beautiful. The book elicits a longing in its reader akin to the yearning of memory. At times, Gravity Changes reads like memoir or personal essay, creating a sense in the reader that she can almost remember the place the narrator is talking about with the hazy clarity one remembers childhood.
Powers makes the unreal that real.