Olivia Clare, Disasters in the First World
Publisher: Black Cat
2017, 192, paperback, $16
OLIVIA CLARE SETS her stories in the lush, lucky, space beyond material desperation. Seemingly comfortable in the care of their basic needs, most of her characters have space to struggle with the challenges of civilization—and Clare routinely demonstrates her talent for complicating her characters’ worlds in unexpected ways that feel right. From the wandering mother of “Pétur” and the difficult little brother of “The Visigoths,” to the tensions of university faculty in “Santa Lucia” and a dried-up Vegas in “Eye of Water,” Clare’s craft reminds us that we are the most dangerous creatures in our world. Disasters in the First World complicates a reader’s expectations and deftly elevates situations that might first appear mundane, into tense moments that delight. Clare works with form and point of view boldly, playfully, and in ways that appear to be natural extensions of character and story.
The opening story, “Pétur,” begins in an otherworld of ash that unfolds to be a mother and son vacationing in Iceland during the Eyjafjallajökull volcano shut-down, when volcanic debris coated Europe and grounded air travel for weeks. This natural drama frames, yet pales in the tension of, the familial upset of an aging parent unhinging from the world. Clare’s keen sense of situation and complication lend freshness to territory that in less deft hands can seem overworked. There’s a sense of the fantastic, even when a story appears seated firmly in realism. It’s the psychological layers of the characters that creates this otherworldly sensation—the idea that the reader understands more, or differently, than the characters.
Clare consistently demonstrates an impeccable instinct for timing, and a sense of how long and far to press a conceit or a character. Her characters have delicate sensibilities, and she plays their fragility with elite gamesmanship. The opening line of “Olivia” gives us a narrator on the brink, and the tension of discovering exactly what she’s on the brink of drives the reader through the story. The opening line, “Because I was happy, I looked for what might ruin me,” lures us in, as even Clare’s most delicate stories are taut with internal suspense. “The Visigoths” establishes a sense of impending disaster in the title, and each page elevates the stakes as the barely-holding-it-together Miranda takes her brilliant and unstable younger brother through the rounds of mental health professionals, and to a museum. Miranda observes Blake in the museum: “He stood and walked up to the painting as if, I thought, approaching an enemy.” The experience of the story is one of heart pounding suspense, even as the narrative pivots and shifts with misdirection that reads as sleight of hand. Something is broken, but it’s never the narrative. The tenuous grip on sanity, civility, or reality, dictates the edges of each character, which Clare is willing to push to their own breaking points, but never far enough to break the story.
Many of the stories are told from the vantage of a first-person narrator, but each narrator announces themselves as a distinctive voice, inhabiting their own world.
There’s no danger of Clare’s stories blurring together, and she’s as playful with form as she is with voice. Lines like “the daylight had stalled, as it does for children,” immerses us in the voice that drives the devastating flash piece “Quiet, Quiet,” and the epistolary “Things That Aren’t the World” grants space for multiple voices to play out a family drama.
A sense of cohesion emerges to connect the collection, and even there Clare surprises in ways that ultimately feel right. Just when the stories persuade the reader that their connective tissue is confined to the privilege of comfort, “Little Moon” places the reader in a panel truck smuggling migrants across a border, reminding us that the first world is not comprised of pure privilege and that even money cannot rule the wonders of nature. The collection closes on an otherworldly note with “Eye of Water,” set in a Las Vegas running out of water—a moment in time that seems to be the future, but could be now.
It is the climactic “Eye of Water” that grants the collection a sense of completion. It feels as though, by finally unhinging from straight reality, Disasters in the First World finally does what it’s been threatening to do—separate from realism and combust into fireworks of imagination and language. “I sing in a lounge behind the club, a square room gilded on all four sides to make drunk VIPs conjure palace ceilings of Versailles, and I the court musician, singing dry, my neck long and taut for thee.” Inside of a decadence that flouts poverty, the collection returns to the image of ash, but uses it differently, and shows the idea of a world on the edge of apocalypse through a fresh lens. The final story casts a glow of otherworldliness, asking the reader to question their own understanding of the stories that came before.
– Michaela Hansen
Olivia Clare was born in New York in 1982 and raised in Louisiana. She holds master’s degrees from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the University of Southern California, as well as a PhD from the University of Nevada. She is an Assistant Professor in Creative Writing at Sam Houston State University. Her fiction has appeared in Granta, n+1, Boston Review, and Southern Review, among other publications, and she’s the author of a book of poems, The 26-Hour Day.