By Tara Laskowski
238 pages, $15
Reviewed by Dylan Kinnett
This is a good time to read Tara Laskowski’s Bystanders. Right now we have a political transition, several wars, and so much information. It’s hard not to feel like a helpless bystander in the midst of a confusing and overwhelming world.
Bystanders gives us thirteen short stories that explore the ways that its characters cope with, or fail to cope with, their existential conditions. In the first story “The Witness,” we’re given an introduction with a story about literal bystanders. A witness to an automobile accident involving the death of a child is forced to reckon with the meaning of the event. Unable to take the role of a passive viewer, like anyone consuming the media coverage of the event, the protagonist sympathizes with the driver of the fatal collision.
The demarcation is not always so clear, however, between the bystander and the agent of change in these stories. One is a ghost story, but the woman who is haunted takes it upon herself to confront the neighboring family whose home is inhabited by that ghost. Another story, about a mundane sort of marriage, suggests that it is possible for two people to go through their entire lives as bystanders, without ever seriously considering the substance of their lives.
Often, the actions in these stories seem to be spontaneously motivated. The characters themselves don’t always seem to be aware of the reasons for their actions, as they find themselves engaged in unusual behavior. In more than one instance they find themselves essentially stalking someone else for ambiguous reasons. It is difficult to condense the pace of real life into a short story, and the action should be quick, but sometimes these spontaneous acts seem a little too far-fetched.
The clearest bystanders of them all are the male characters in many of these stories. A boyfriend is more interested in the television than the conversation. A father is content to leave most of the parental duties to the mother’s charge, and the mother likes it that way. There are lovers whose personalities are mostly a sense of humor. They never seem to take anything seriously. These situations are rarely the primary conflict, however. They are merely conditions to be endured. Nearly everyone in these stories is powerless, in some way, but the male characters in particular seem disinclined to take serious action at all, which places them in a role as bystanders, more often than not.
Many of the stories feel something akin to an Alfred Hitchcock film, positioned as they are somewhere between a thriller, a mystery, and a romance. “There’s Someone Behind You” begins with romance and develops into intrigue and stalking, not unlike the situation in Hitchcock’s movie “Vertigo.” After all, a voyeur is a kind of bystander. Others stories feel more like something from the Twilight Zone. In the ghost story for example, the ghost could be real, or a figment of an exhausted mother’s imagination; it’s unclear. The not knowing is a big part of what creates the tension in that story and makes it such a riveting read.
One story stands out in particular for its formal qualities. “Happy and Humpy” is structured as a series of short vignettes, each with its own subtitle, named for the aphorisms commonly used by one of its characters. Within a book of short stories, it is delightful to find one of them that’s comprised, itself, of even shorter stories.
These stories are quite varied in their approach to the theme, but also in their style, and even their genre. This variety makes for a delightfully surprising book, and the prose keeps you absorbed. They all have one thing in common: their honest depiction of realistic lives, troubled and not easy to control. You may be able to relate to these characters, who are partly the protagonists of their lives, but who are also bystanders.