Jacob M. Appel, Einstein’s Beach House, Stories
2014, 179 pages, paperback, $15.95
Create a story about characters with a compelling yet unfulfilled want and you will build a tale of tension; craft a narrative that connects to a universal desire and you will construct a powerhouse of need that compels a reader. The stories in Einstein’s Beach House range from quirky and whimsical to bone-hollowingly eerie. Appel has written a collection bound by the common negotiation between absurdity and need. His characters inhabit worlds that are intriguing in their difference but compelling in their universality.
The opening story, “Hue and Cry,” explores forgiveness. Upon the canvas of a community thrown into uproar when a sex-offender moves onto the block, thirteen-year-old Lizzie navigates the limits of security and parental protection. In “La Tristesse Des Hérissons,” a couple negotiates the compromises of their relationship through escalating absurdity:
We’d been living together for eight months when we adopted the hedgehog. I’d wanted a German shepherd or a Doberman pinscher—a fearless, intimidating animal that could accompany me jogging in the park late at night, Adeline wanted a baby.
“Strings” and “Limerence” both examine the vestiges of past relationships, while the title story, “Einstein’s Beach House” depicts the fallibility of both memory and parents.
But she didn’t yield. ‘So you were wrong and I was right. That doesn’t change anything.’ Mama said. She stood arms akimbo at the cusp of the interstate, flushed in the sweltering heat, while her sweat-stained husband crouched beside her on the steaming black asphalt. And this was the moment when an eleven-year-old schoolgirl named Natalie Scragg first recognized the painful difference that would forever separate her from her mother: given a choice, Natalie preferred having a house, while her mother preferred having a fight.”
Appel’s style is spare, quiet. He lets his characters and their surroundings set the tone for his quiet, driven pieces that do not require linguistic acrobatics, but are instead confident in their universal chords. “Sharing the Hostage” is comfortable in its simplicity. Stylistic fireworks would be disingenuous at this stage, showcasing the baggage in a dying relationship through the joint-custody of a couple’s box turtle.
Each story in this collection has it’s own power, but “The Rod of Asclepius” stands out and inhabits another level of craft. It is at once piquant, creepy, and heart breaking. If this collection is a meditation on the limits of relationships, the antepenultimate story pushes this question to the boundaries of humanity. A young girl’s construction of her widower father’s identity and intention informs both her future, and the reader’s grasp of the humane. Appel’s style is at its best here; his subtle navigation of character and withholding come together to deliver with a punch. The elegant style needs no more adornment than the firepower in its grenade-launcher of a closing line.
Appel writes with a clear style that evokes the elements of each character’s world. Gentle with the application of details, his subtle world building still lets you know that “Hue and Cry,” “Limerence,” “Einstein’s Beach House,” and “The Rod of Asclepius” inhabit a vintage space of brown velveteen couches and earth-tone carpets. “La Tristesse Des Hérissons,” “Strings,” and “Sharing the Hostage” are modern New York City, with its mix of art, conflict, and whimsy. The final tale, “Paracosmos,” settles comfortably into suburbia. This mundane location showcases the revelations of parents required to question their reality, along with that of their daughter, and her (possibly) imaginary friend. Appel lets setting do the heavy lifting right alongside his characters, allowing the stories of this collection to operate on multiple planes. You won’t get lost in Appel’s stories; every detail directs you along a crafted path.
If Appel has a flaw, it is his occasional explanation of meaning after he achingly shows the reader what he intends. Perhaps it is a lack of trust, a questioning of faith, but the moments Appel envisions and shares are well worth his occasional tendency to expound. The skillfully crafted final moment of The “Rod of Asclepius” compels a reader to perceive the weighted, summative endings of both “Hue and Cry” and “Einstein’s Beach House” with fondness rather than disdain.
Appel lopes jauntily down the tightrope of tragedy and humor. He has a clear vision of the juxtaposition of humanity against the absurd. The success of these stories lies within the relationships they depict–the ties between people, their desires, and the way in which they advocate for their needs. There is a point when humanity becomes more ridiculous than the absurd, and beyond that, there is a moment when humanity and the absurd merge to become, simply human. This is the space in which Appel writes, the moment when the absurd seems reasonable: to pay for therapy for a depressed hedgehog, to support your lover’s joint custody agreement for a box-turtle, and to recognize the indelible gifts and wounds a parent gives to a child. Appel shows a mastery of his craft because he is able to illustrate these moments while never losing sight of the moment where absurdity will, once again, reign.
– Michaela Hansen