By Hillary Le
Slices of very human life are the building blocks of the short story collection, Einstein’s Beach House, by Jacob M. Appel – and dysfunction is the glue and gloss that keeps it all together. The pieces sometimes move at break neck pace – specifics of place and time and character are often frontloaded in the collection, sometimes at the expense of narrative flow and fluid characterization, and in a few stories Appel’s story-telling becomes formulaic: fast start, expositional sprint, meaty pause for reflection, and a bullet ending. The characters are perhaps the gems of the collection – they pulse with life and longing, pain and cleverness, and carry complicated family histories and relations, where every dysfunction revealed (and there are many) suggests ten others.
In the opener, “Hue and Cry,” the disgust with which the main character Lizzie ultimately views her diseased father is foreshadowed by our frank, catch-all introduction to him:
“One night, the thirty-year-old-agnostic middle-school principal summoned his daughters to hot cocoa at the kitchen table and announced: ‘I fear I have taught you girls too much grammar and not enough forgiveness.’”
Lizzie’s father’s dying aim, personality, will, is summed up in this sentence, and while the rest of the story builds upon and substantiates these details, it is hard to swallow the initial introduction. The punch of characterization, concentrated and up-front, recurs throughout the pieces – along with insertion of the reader into a very particular place in time.
“That year Lizzie’s kid sister kept a list of things that were funny when they happened to other people…” the collection begins – what year? Who is Lizzie and why are we talking about her kid sister and what she thought of other people?
Here are all the details, Appel says, as he hands us a shot of the specifics, and here – chase it down with the rest of the story. We are both distanced by the act and forced and pushed and willed to immerse ourselves in it, to understand the specifics hidden in the rest of the story.
If “Hue and Cry” begins the sketch of human brokenness, telling the story of a young girl exploring her sexuality under the watch of an emasculated father and neighboring sex offender, “La Tristesse Des Herissons” outlines and eventually colors in everything in bold black Sharpie – with Josh and Adeline as a couple stuck in a limbo between childhood and adulthood. Adeline’s father committed suicide when she was a child, and she falls for Josh (literally) over a dessert cart at the bistro he co-owns for a living with former law school classmates. The deterioration of their relationship moves in tandem with the progression of the story – Adeline at one point threatens to jump off of their sixth story balcony, out of jealousy toward a college-age waitress at Josh’s bistro – until what love is left to keep them together can only be tied back to their faded images of their happy beginnings and anxiety of the unknown. Their new family member, Orion the hedgehog, becomes a conduit for their emotions. The proxy for communication bends and stretches between the couple until Josh cracks and ends up on the sixth-floor balcony himself, his hand bloodied and holding on to the hedgehog “for dear life.” By then it is unclear whose life he’s referring to – or if any of the three lives at stake are separable any longer.
In “Strings” Cynthia the rabbi struggles to rationalize the anxiety and emotion that comes when her past and former flame Jacques reappears in her life, because of the potential for both the greatness and calamity – unpredictability – that he represents, and the threat he presents in her stable life and marriage to the calm, supportive Jed. Jesse in “Limerence” spends much of his boyhood infatuated with the rebellious Lina Limpetti, whose metal anklet and sexual prowess at thirteen hold an attraction he cannot shake even in adulthood. In “Sharing the Hostage” a history of baby-snatching family members is swapped with a joint custody arrangement over a tortoise named Fred. Again and again we see characters experiencing the pivotal histories that will shape them, reflecting on their childhood as their adult selves, or struggling to cope with the suicidal psyches, family values, leftover pets and other miscellaneous items borne from past experiences.
The stories are weaved together with threads like humans channeling their inner struggles through things outside themselves, troubled relationships, and disruptions within the home. But there are moments where the narrative voice feels disconnected. When Lizzie explores the sex offender’s house, she observes with surprise that there is “[n]othing pornographic, nothing more risqué than the work of D.H. Lawrence.” The observation makes sense thematically, with the threads of homosexual attraction, questions of morality, and forgiveness in the face of weakness and death – but would any other child know Lawrence in this valence, or at all?
Similarly, the narrator in “Sharing the Hostage” is a former ventriloquist with baby-snatching relatives and a long history of dating – interesting, but lacking development; the narration and character are off pace. His new girlfriend Maddie reads as a flatter, happier version of Adeline – though just as committed to her pet (this time a tortoise). Appel’s bullet of an ending approach is less impactful here, partly because the stakes are not as high for the new and weakly developed couple, partly because it ends on the all-too-simple notion that people have to deal with one another until someone gives.
Dysfunction is the vehicle Appel uses to draw out the consequences of our failure to face reality – our unwillingness to compromise. In the story that shares the collection’s name, a resourceful father, Bryce, decides to capitalize on an error in the American Automobile Association’s guidebook that marks his beach house as once the great Albert Einstein’s, only to find his ownership questioned and ultimately overturned under Einstein’s name. The displacement of his family from their home draws out his stubborn idealism and places it in direct opposition to his wife’s practicality, and ultimately crushes his creative spirit, a painful erasure of a childhood home for both him and his daughters. One imagination is traded for another – first, Bryce pretends his beach house was once Einstein’s, and years after displacement, that his beach house never existed at all. The collection ends with “Paracosmos,” in which a couple (Leslie and Hugh) struggle over their daughter Evie’s imaginary friend, Lauren, until Hugh ultimately bans her from the household. While Evie moves on and reintegrates with her real-life friends, Leslie finds herself embroiled in a surreal affair with Lauren’s father – a reversion to her own tendency toward imaginary friend-hood and a result of her unconscious, unfulfilled wants as an adult. Truth is defined in the eye of the beholder in both stories, just as the fuel of each story is the individual perceptions and interactions between different perceptions. While Bryce experiences the painful reality of losing his home, Leslie leaves hers on the basis of an imaginary lover, and the question remains whether either have learned to deal with reality any better in the end.
By far the collection’s strongest piece, “The Rod of Asclepius,” seamlessly encompasses dysfunction, the impact of childhood and one’s past, and the blurred lines between imagination and reality. Here Appel’s storytelling is at its best, with the narrator Lauren telling the story of her and her father’s experiences after her mother passes from “a ruptured uterus” through “pulses” of memory that build to a jarring conclusion. Lauren discovers as we discover, there is no unnatural rush of characterization, no observation that seems out of place. Lauren’s reality is, she ultimately finds, fiction, her father as false as he is charming, as vulnerable as he is dangerous. “I doubt so many falsehoods have been concealed with so much truth,” she observes – a prescient understanding of the complex nature of truth, of reality, and of pretend that all of Appel’s characters, young or old, explore.
Appel’s characters are endlessly relatable first because of their complex histories – the specificity of each character’s life, his or her family, pivotal past experiences, paint them as colorful, chipped, and real. Second, and perhaps most importantly, because the characters struggle to process the reality around them. We meet a suicidal girlfriend who adopts a hedgehog, a leeching ex-boyfriend with half an organized adult life and orchestral ambitions, an architect father who sneaks into hospitals for vengeance – yet in the same stories, respectively, we meet a young couple with very real commitment issues who are struggling with depression, we experience the fear of having a stable life being upturned by exciting but dangerously unpredictable forces, and we see the ways we try and fail to cope with loss. Through characters that throb with life, Appel hits at the human struggle to process and deal with the reality that is around them, and particularly the reality that is growing up. The tales and characters are specific and strange enough to read as fiction – and real and relatable enough to resonate.
Read an excerpt from Einstein’s Beach House, “The Rod of Asclepius“, reprinted with permission on 87 Bedford.
© Copyright 2016 Hillary Le
Hillary Le is a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley where she studied Business, English, and Creative Writing. She has contributed to a variety of campus publications and blogs and continues to work on her prose outside of her 8 to 5 in San Francisco Bay Area. A hand-bound copy of her self-published novella, “Home: A Notebook,” can be found in the UC Berkeley Library collection.