Further Adventures in the Restless Universe
Dawn Raffel
Dzanc Books, 2010
Review by Kimberly King Parsons

"I am terrible at names and at faces—both," says the narrator in "The Alternate Palace," one of twenty-one poetically precise stories in Dawn Raffel’s latest collection. "I cannot always recognize the people I know. But this I insist: I have never, I swear it, forgotten a voice."

Slim and elegant at one hundred pages, Further Adventures in the Restless Universe is composed entirely of unforgettable voices, most of them unnamed, many lacking typical descriptive attributes—"the height of them, the weight of them—facts—which a person in authority would rightly request." Raffel supplants the need for such information with precision of voice—though they may be unidentifiable in a lineup, the characters here are utterly familiar, made up of "flesh and blood, etcetera." The act of withholding information—indistinguishable neighborhood kids have "soundalike names," an aunt is referred to only as Great Aunt X—establishes exclusivity in these relationships. "I could tell you his name," baits the narrator in "Near Taurus." "I could and would not."

Characters here are primarily identified by their relationships to one another. Mother offers tissues, sings, does the laundry. The son asks too many questions. Fathers and daughters "have a habit together of reading in the night." Sisters are "taught to spray the telephone for reasons of hygiene." Grandfather, too old to be behind the wheel, "enter[s] people’s driveways, thinking they [are] streets to someplace else." As in her exquisite first collection, In the Year of Long Division, Raffel is most at home in the home. Routine domesticity provides an opportunity for the examination of delicate familial relations. "The woman with the basket of wash is me," says one narrator. "I am a failure at folding. The bedding is crushed. The shirts are getting bigger: boy’s, men’s."

Raffel’s pitch-perfect dialogue and expertly rendered syntax serves to further establish the lexicon of family. In a phone conversation in "The Interruption," two sisters use inside references and convoluted half-statements to parse out the story of a distant relative’s migration from Poland to Chicago. In "North of the Middle" an adult daughter meets her mother for a weekend getaway:

The mother says, "Look." She says, "Look at yourself."

The daughter is young. She is darling to look at, the mother says. 

"If only," the mother says.

"Stop it," the daughter says, the timbre dropped, as if some sort of gauntlet.

"Mother," she says
"All I am saying," the mother says.

Theirs is a private language of shared experience that defers to a script as old as the relationship itself. Even as the clipped words highlight an inability to communicate, they contain a kind of predictable, if cyclical, comfort. The language of family is, above all else, personal. Raffel deftly avoids irrelevant specifics so that we may graft our own particulars, however difficult or annoying or bittersweet those familial exchanges may be, onto these pages. The result is a timeless depiction of our first and most formative relationships, told in achingly beautiful prose.

To hear the author read from the work, visit http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_JXULFGiRCo&feature=player_embedded rel="nofollow"

Kimberly King Parsons's writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Columbia:  A Journal of Literature and Art, elimae, The Collagist, Everyday Genius, Suddenly, Time Out New York, and The Chapbook Review.  She lives in Queens and is at work on a short story collection about liars.

© Kimberly King Parsons, 2010