Uncomfortable and Unhinged People: A Review of When You Find Us We Will Be Gone by Christopher Linforth

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When You Find Us We Will Be Gone
by Christopher Linforth
Lamar University Press, 2014
170 pages, $12.94
Reviewed by Emily Golden

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It always strikes me as interesting, the things that come back to us during different periods of time. Reading through When You Find Us We Will Be Gone, I found myself frequently reflecting on the words of a writing professor who told us, during my time as an undergrad, that good fiction was meant to leave you feeling uncomfortable—unhinged in some way. Perhaps because every one of the stories Linforth includes in his collection—though vastly different from one another—are able to do just that. It is, in many ways, the tie that binds these stories together. Linforth’s characters range from modern day cowboys in Fukushima to grieving teenagers in Levittown, New York to concentration camp prisoners in Nazi Germany.

The characters themselves are seemingly unusual choices for protagonists—they are modern characters with real humanity, and therefore with all of the flaws that make us human. They often seem almost self-aware, in that they know they are headed for some sort impending disaster, but choose to keep moving in the same direction. In “Homeland,” main character Alex sees that his seven-year-long-distance relationship is coming to an end, but does nothing to stop it. He wants his girlfriend, Saskia, to move stateside to be with him, but never even asks her. In fact, they do very little talking about their relationship at all. In “The Lake,” we see a marriage at its end, with Ruth and Jim seemingly making a last effort to save it, but not really. They are given a few opportunities to make small steps toward mending what is broken, but decide against it. They are not the great hero protagonists of the past—they are there to show us what we do, as humans who fight for self preservation many times over all else, not realizing we are in fact destroying pieces of the lives we have built for ourselves.

Again in “The Lake,” we see something jarring that Linforth achieves through imagery. Protagonist Jim and wife Ruth have decided to take a car trip together, in a last ditch effort to save their marriage. They drive from their home in New York to Kansas, where Jim grew up and used to vacation with his parents. Jim seems uncomfortable throughout the course of the story until the very end, when he goes for a walk alone and finds a dead seal hanging upside down in the middle of the lake area, with a young boy standing there staring at it. Jim takes this image in stride, seems unphased by it, and in many ways calmer than he has been throughout the entire story. There isn’t any action taken, and no real questioning of how such a creature wound up here, in the middle of a campsite beside a lake in Kansas. In these ways, Linforth illustrates something to his reader—that pulling away from what has become the life you have built has become almost commonplace, and in juxtaposing it with extreme images and situations, we see how dangerous that sort of behavior can be for us.

It seems he is teaching the same lesson in “The Persistence of Vision,” where main character Jonathon Lumen, a writer in New York, feels he is the target of an elaborate prank that leaves him thinking that everyone believes the main character of his first novel, David Phot, is also its author. The novel, Lumen tells us in the story, is about memory repression, about substituting what is false for what is true. Lumen himself has minimal interaction with his own wife and daughter (his wife never refers to him by name throughout the story), and as he never truly tries to clarify with anyone, you begin to wonder if he, himself is not a victim of the memory repression he talks about. There is a moment in the story when Lumen goes to his safe to look at an original print of his novel, to ensure that he is, in fact, the author, but then decides against it; if he never looks, he can never be proven either wrong or right. This is a common theme in many of Linforth’s stories—the Schrodinger’s Cat thought experiment; that something can both be true and untrue, as long as we don’t take any lengths to prove it one way or the other. Jonathon Lumen can both be the author and suffering the effects of memory repression so long as he never looks at the original copy of the novel, never asks anyone who knows him about it specifically.

In “Diminuendo,” there is a beautifully poetic use of the Schrodinger paradox. Protagonist Phillip travels to the home of Oskar Vesely, the elderly “once-famous Czech violinist.” Phillip buys and sells violins, and Vesely’s is a rare Stradivarius from the late 1600s. When he arrives, he finds that Vesely has decided not to part with the violin. He also learns from Vesely’s dauther, Anna, that the musician refuses to even take the instrument out of its case. “The thing is he can’t bear to touch it. In case it is his last opportunity to play.” Perhaps this is Vesely’s personal deal with some all-powerful being that, as long as he does not play, as long as he holds off, he can go on living, go on being a once-famous Czech violinist. Phillip stays in the area for a few days, each day coming back to Vesely’s home in an effort to get his hands on the instrument for auction. When he and Anna hear music from another room, they find Vesely playing. We as readers do not know whether he has decided that his feelings about not playing are nonsensical, or if he feels that he has come close to his own end, and is playing for the last time.

“Flyer” is another of Linforth’s stories in which the thought experiment is called into play. Samuel, our young protagonist, asks to go to work with his father at Coney Island. His father runs a hotdog stand there, and agrees to take Samuel with him for the day, if he doesn’t start any trouble “like last time.” Once Samuel gets to Coney Island, he takes off exploring on his own, until he is met with Mr. Kendrick, his father’s boss. Mr. Kendrick follows Samuel around, and eventually to the beach, where Samuel gets into the water to get away from Mr. Kendrick. As the reader, you can’t help but feel uneasy about Mr. Kendrick’s presence—Linforth’s writing leaves you with the feeling that his intentions with Samuel are not entirely innocent. He follows Samuel into the water, and it is clear from his hesitation and the description of his movement that he is not a strong swimmer. Then there is a shift in the story, an unexpected moment that leaves you questioning Samuel:

I noticed Mr. Kendrick was fighting against the chill of the water. His limbs hardened, and his breaths got deeper. Glassy-eyed, a look of horror crossed his face as a large whitecap rolled his way. I laughed at him, and he stopped swimming to say something. He garbled a few words I couldn’t quite hear. His head dipped under the water as the wave engulfed him. I watched his last location to see if he would reemerge. When he didn’t surface, I was glad. He was gone and wouldn’t talk about me with Father.

This section of the story is significant for a few reasons. It highlights a tool Linforth uses frequently in his writing—is Kendrick, in fact, dead? We hear nothing more about him in the story, and so we can believe that he is both dead and alive. It also highlights the uneasiness Linforth is able to create in us as readers. What is great about this disquiet and discomfort is that it seems as though Linforth is trying to hold a mirror up for us to see our own human flaws, perhaps in an effort to get us to fight against them. Maybe there is something in the title that shows us the characters, varied in status and situation, in age and location, understanding that they are dooming themselves. Help us, stop us, or when you find us we will be gone.

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