What We Were Doing and Where We Were Going, by Damion Searls (Dalkey Archive Press)

posted Feb 15, 2010, 6:43 PM by Jeff Brandt   [ updated Feb 15, 2010, 9:26 PM ]
In honor of Dalkey Archive Press's new website relaunch (snazzy!), I am reviewing esteemed translator Damion Searls's What We Were Doing and Where

We Were Going, his first book of fiction. Published in May of 2009, this slim volume of five short
stories glitters with thoughtful self-awareness, often taking as its subject matter the life of a writer. Of course, I don't know Mr. Searls personally, but there are a few moments where the level of intimacy -- or perhaps familiarity is a better word -- with the characters sends the impression of autobiography.

For starters, we have "56 Water Street," the story of a writer coming into conflict with his friends over the circular, Dante-esque plot of his latest book -- also titled "56 Water Street," which happens to be his home address but is not about himself. Well, at least not on the surface.

Like the protagonist in Purgatory, who travels to the spiritual realm so that he can return when he dies,

"56 Water Street is also about a man who circles back, who journeys to where he already is . . . In Chapter One he mends his net, restoring the holes in the mesh to their proper places; in Chapter Two he repaints the hull of his little boat so that it looks the same as before; in Chapter Three he watches a storm at sea clear up as dusk falls, and the sky grows neither darker nor lighter.'"

"Sounds boring," he said.

"I hope so."

What We Were Doing is full of clever, funny moments like that. Like in the next story, "The Cubicles," in which the narrator looks back on his time as a white collar office worker -- a copy editor at "Prophet Corp." He remembers, as if a dream, the office politics, the rumors around the water cooler, and the absurd quarrels over typography:

Scrupulously did the Ph.D. in English capitalize the first word of each and every sentence! Thunderingly did the art historian insist on changing double-hyphens to dashes, and politely refrain from pointing out that Chapter 3 was clearly atken from the wrong book! To the death did we struggle in meetings over to write "e-business," "E-business," or "eBusiness"!


"Goldenchain," the curious and bittersweet third entry in the collection, relates a married couple's pre-announced final trip before separating. From New York they fly to
the Pacific Northwest and tack off a series of "lasts," ending their trip at a bed-and-breakfast on a small, foggy island in Puget Sound. Also a frame story, we see the narra
tor searching for writerly inspiration by browsing ancient healing scrolls in an African Art Museum. His discovery that Ethiopian Christians sought to contain sickness and despair, to aesthetically box it in rather than destroy it, echoes back when he stands on the hilltop on San Juan Island, the fog cleared, finding himself surrounded by mountains.

At eight pages, "A Guide to San Francisco" is Searls's shortest story in the book. Here the narrator muses on the city's cables, the different neighborhoods, the architecture, his odd first memories of SF, and most of all, the art and literary scene.

When I get back to the table, my friend starts to tell me about the book he is working on, set in Silicon Valley and the biotech complexes unsafely springing up on the landfill downtown where public housing was supposd to go. His descriptions of everything I hate about living here: too expensive, too divisive, too new.

"I need to get out of this city," I say.

"How can you want to leave San Francisco? People come to San Francisco, they don't leave."

Appropriately, Searls closes out on the mind-bending "Dialogue Between the Two Chief World Systems." My personal favorite of the bunch, "Dialogue" introduces us to (yet another) writer and his academic friend who discovers the important missing piece of his English dissertation during a drunken conversation with a lovely Hungarian grad student. She recites a story she once read that spoke to the core of his thesis -- that all authors are essentially borrowing from authors who came before them, even down to the micro-level of using words they did not invent.

I don't want to quote her story here, or to give away the rest of Searls's plot . . . There is great pleasure to be had in delving into meta-level after meta-level of this story. But I will say that the very source of the Hungarian student's story comes into question, and the friend's epiphany is launched into a state of crisis.

If you enjoy literary fiction, but you've been stuck in a reading rut for awhile, read this. The prose is refreshing, and Searls seems to have mastered writing the little details that inspire thought and laughter.


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