Andrew Porter, The Theory of Light and Matter (University of Georgia, 2008)
There’s something disturbing about the suburbs. In his tragicomic stories on the status quo, John Cheever, the so-called “Checkhov of the suburbs,” probed postwar America for its undercurrents of stifled discontent. Lust, envy, and general malaise pervade Shady Hill, the upstate setting of his 1958 collection of tales. Since then, the restlessness roiling under the pristine surface of suburbia has been a familiar theme in American fiction. From Richard Yates’ “Revolutionary Road” to the recent novels of A.M. Homes, Tom Perrotta, and Chang-Rae Lee, much goes wrong in middle class Eden, often to explosive effect. In The Theory of Light and Matter, Andrew Porter’s thoughtful debut collection, it is the refractive act of remembering that sounds these murky depths.
These ten short stories, which won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, deal mostly with pivotal events in their narrators’ pasts. All but one are told in the imperfect tense, giving each first-person voice a tone of wistful retrospect. Some hinge on sudden dislocations that jolt the characters’ existence, as in a boyhood friend’s freak fall in “Hole.” In others, moments of trauma are embedded in the story’s arc, and the ripples they cause are just as crucial as the events themselves.
Porter’s strongest stories allow memories to accumulate and slowly, subtly interact. In “Coyotes,” the narrator’s filmmaker father goes missing for months at a time as he scours the Texas deserts for footage. Meanwhile, the narrator gets to sitting on the roof at night, listening for the sound of coyotes as he waits for his mother to return from dates with other men: “You never saw these creatures during the day, but at night, after the sun had descended at the far end of our street, you could sometimes hear them howling, like dogs, in the distance.” In this dreamy, twilit moment his allegiance to his mother and the mystery and allure of his absent father coexist.
Porter never strays too far into fantasy. Cheever and Yates are among his acknowledged influences, and he writes with a similarly clearheaded realism. Though his prose is more measured and less prone to atmospheric effects than Cheever’s, there are moments that echo the older author’s vision of suburbia. In “River Dog,” about a boy who struggles to distance himself from his troubled brother, the siblings bike through tony Eschelman Heights, passing “the Bensons’, the Hubers’, the Fultons’” and their tented lawn parties. The scene is reminiscent of Cheever’s “The Swimmer,” with its endless catalogue of couples’ households and languid Sunday cocktails.
Perhaps the best piece in this collection is the titular “The Theory of Light and Matter.” It is the only story with a female narrator, and Porter inhabits her perspective with striking awareness. As an undergraduate at Brown, she develops a covert friendship with a much-older professor that gradually turns into unrealized love. Meanwhile, she dates and then marries her college boyfriend to become a doctor’s wife. Porter renders her isolation and regret, and her love for both men, with unabashed honesty. The story’s only false note is its heavy-handed treatment of the professor’s fate.
This tendency toward melodrama plagues some of Porter’s stories. Scenes such as the final sequence of “Azul,” which features an ambulance and a tearful marital exchange, seem slowed down, magnified, and milked for dramatic effect. The narrator’s alternate vision of events in “Hole,” in which he takes the fall for his friend, is noble but predictable. And the ominous flash-forward in the two-page story “Skin” reads like a mawkish movie voiceover. But most of the memories collected here contain a delicate, affecting sadness. Some future event or condition haunts each story’s end, and the closing moments glow before fading into dusk.