How We Move the Air
Garnett Kilberg Cohen
Mayapple Press, 2010
Review by Kara Gheldof

Spanning twenty years in the lives of a group of loosely connected characters, How We Move the Air is a story about suicide and depression, art and the pursuit of truth, beauty and betrayal, and the way death resonates among the living, long after the deceased is gone. Garnett Kilberg Cohen presents us with a group of people—mostly women—who have been left so affected by the suicide of a man they were all connected to once, that they are finding it difficult to move on, even though years have passed. It is a collection of linked stories that shows the impression death leaves through the medium of music and ambient sound.

The range of characters put before us is wide and generally estranged. Some have never even met, but nonetheless, they have all felt the impact of the suicide of musician Jake Doyle in the mid-80s. Jake himself is a presence only in his absence, which we are to understand is probably something he would have liked, being an experimental musician ostensibly "ahead of his time," though in reality it seems Jake was more lost in his music and the pursuit of unrecorded sound than he was in control of it.

Cohen's collection primarily focuses on its female characters. Even in the two pieces where the main characters are men, there is a distinct female presence (one of the men, Jake’s former pot dealer, speaks to his therapist about three women intertwined in his thoughts, while the other, Jake’s younger brother Danny, has some focus taken away from his story by his inventive yet naïve daughter, whose musings about her father’s past lead her to believe he is cheating on her mother), yet it all comes back to Jake in the end. Jake’s sorrowful mistress, his detached and lonely wife, his troubled daughter, and his independent and bitter baby sister represent the most compelling characters in Cohen’s collection. Though they are different, the one loss they all have in common binds them inextricably.

The unusual approach taken by Cohen is that the first narrative belongs to Jake’s mistress, Kay, setting the reader up for expectations that are summarily dashed. It seems she does this several times over, with each new narrative, shaping the reader's supposed feelings about a person only to break the mold with the next point of view. When Kay passionately speaks to the long-dead Jake (the only character to directly acknowledge the prematurely deceased), the reader is swept up in the rush of romance cut short, so when the immediate follow-up is Jake’s impersonal widow’s story of acknowledging her husband’s death and affair, it becomes more difficult to identify whose story this is.

How We Move the Air does employ some of the usual dramatic traditions—loosely connected characters move in and out of each others’ lives, a misplaced letter makes waves over and over again as it is rediscovered years after its inception (a Victorian element that would make the greatest sensational fiction writers of the era proud), unreliable narrators provide abstract opinions on events, and it begins and ends with a death and birth announcement, respectively, a blunt tool which may not be new, but does at least wrap up the series with some finality.

What we are left with, however, is not wrapped up in a nice, tight bow. While we get the feeling that some people whom Jake affected with his actions have been changed for the better by resuming their interactions with each other, we don’t necessarily believe that all the characters have redirected their lives. Perhaps this is for the best, though, as it stays true to the idea that not everyone can move on after death, and time doesn't change every person for the better.

While each of Cohen’s stories could conceivably stand on its own, they are really better off read together and in the order she presents us with. Some characters are more fully explored than others, and the male characters are less well-defined, their narratives paving the way for the stronger female presence in their story. The two male-narrative pieces feel more like bridges to the female-dominated pieces, while the others are stand-alones. In the end, the menagerie lends to a fully-realized story that would feel incomplete without all the pieces intact, as we are afforded snippets into these people's lives sparingly, as if the story really is about something other than an unfortunate suicide. If it was Cohen’s intention to write an ensemble character study, then she has succeeded in doing so with poetry and poise.

© Kara Gheldof, 2010