Michael Czyzniejewski, Elephants in Our Bedroom

Publisher: Dzanc Books
2009, 203 pages, paperback, $16.95

elephants in our Bedroom is the exciting debut short story collection from editor (Mid-American Review) and educator (Bowling Green State University) Michael Czyzniejewski. Although not without a couple bumps, Czyzniejewski’s Elephants is a ride worth taking due to its fresh deviation from conventional collections in both form and style.

Elephants in Our Bedroom is a heterogeneous collection of standard length stories and flash fiction; a format which makes for an unpredictable yet pleasurable reading pace. Most of the book’s stories occupy an unusual space of ten or so pages. A lesser writer might have fallen back on such brevity due to his or her lack of creative imagination, or by being trapped into one angle of story telling (i.e. “the moment”), or the protagonist’s interiority, or exteriority, or (God forbid) the “idea” of the story. The short-short, however, is Czyzniejewski’s home field, and he guides each tale through a fully-realized world and character; one whose passions and fears are the crux of his or her predicament. If Czyzniejewski’s stories are short, it is because he crafts them well–there is no need to go into extra innings. Without obtrusive back-story or the perfunctory need to belabor the moment, readers will become easily caught up in his characters’ lives and so share the weight of their futures.

The most dominant characteristic of this collection is the bizarre premises of its stories: humanity shocked to realize we have not yet explained the origin of wind, a woman whose husband sleep-smothers her with a pillow two hours after he has fallen asleep every night, a man who keeps the elephant he won during a poker game in his and his wife’s bedroom, the color purple erased from existence. Despite the plain absurdity of its many settings, this collection is not funny. Not soon after we’ve had our chuckle over these otherwise typical worlds turned seemingly comical by the addition of the strange, we quickly realize that we were wrong to do so; these are troubled worlds, skewed by a loss of normalcy, and no laughing matter. Each bizarre premise serves to increase dramatic tension–the ever-looming sense of “the other” creeping in and distancing the central character from her/his loved one(s). In many of these stories, we watch as the protagonist stumbles into the gynecologists, wooden dummies, old men, and other lovers that have replaced him/her in his/her partner’s affections. The moment we realize we are observing a character in pain, that the clown’s makeup is running, the inappropriateness of our previous interpretation of the events is masterfully delivered–less like seltzer water or a pie, but like a humbling slap to the face:

I imagine my lover’s call when she returns. With coaxing, I’ll remind her of her pledge, repeat what she said on the ship about growing old together. I’ll speak the words she spoke, imitating her conniving whisper, and no matter how good I am at being her, she will accuse me of another odd joke, deny she’d ever said such things, insist I admit that I made it all up.

Here lies the existential crisis, if you will, of the entire collection: how does one cope with such loss, the breaches that arise in our hearts and minds over what was and what is, the distance we feel from the person we’d believed we had and who is now so unfamiliar? This profound confusion creates the gravitas of these stories and is what compels us to read on. Even if it is too late, we–like the protagonists–want to believe otherwise. We hold to this belief till the very end, when the fact of each situation clears–communication between spouses, lovers, parents, friends is broken beyond repair; a gap exists that cannot be crossed, no matter how bad we wish to be on the other side.

With the publication of Elephants in Our Bedroom, Czyzniejewski has emerged as a unique and important Chicago writer. Without the deliberation of a regional writer, Czyzniejewski’s Midwest is not evoked predominantly through setting but instead lives through his characters. Against his stories’ often-bizarre premises, the Midwest’s no-nonsense, unpretentious, and sometimes provincial demeanor, even in the face of catastrophic events and/or the very absurdity of existence, is pleasantly familiar. The semi-urban landscapes and inner-scapes of the homes and work places showcase how each character is confined; their speech, pastimes (the Cubs, hotdog grilling, beer, television, fireworks) and concerns (work, baseball) are also all pitched with a distinct Midwestern flavor and work to the same end of effortlessly rendering the region.

Despite the many highlights of this collection, I did find myself wondering if it was necessary to include all twenty-four stories in this single collection, despite their length. Several hit the same thematic notes and some are better than others, leaving me feeling as if more focus should have been given to the thematic flow of the work. Despite the fact that perhaps not every story included is a homerun, there are many hits that deserve attention and praise: “Wind,” “Streetfishing,” “Fight,” and–my personal favorite–“My Lover’s Name.”

Through unconventionality of form and style and the weight of its centralized thematic thread, Czyzniejewski has done in Elephants in Our Bedroom what great works of fiction only hope to do–it shakes us up. Even if the gap of loss seems impossible to cross, he reminds us that it must be crossed if we are to have a hold on happiness. He also reminds us that the origin of these breaks is an impasse in communication. The elephants in our bedrooms are worth talking about. And worth reading about, too.

–Daniel Keltner