Short Work by Chelsea BiekerShort Work

Stories Right-Side Up:

We're Flying, by Peter Stamm

By Chelsea Bieker

We're Flying by Peter Stammach time I finished a story by Swiss writer Peter Stamm, I was left with a lingering and strange exhaustion, as if I had trekked through an arid dessert or engaged in an argument I couldn’t remember—emotionally drained in the best way, as great short fiction can sometimes do. But as I read, I wondered, what is it about these stories that makes them so achingly beautiful, so oddly attractive? There was even something I didn’t like about them, but I felt an unmistakable pull to carry on. Now that I have finished We’re Flying, I may have figured it out. Stamm doesn’t pull any punches, and he doesn’t offer up extravagant or roaring prose. He creeps quietly, with spare and straightforward descriptions, stripping his worlds down to their most simple form. He allows bare images to create story. The sentences layer to build an unmistakable intensity, and Stamm never misses a beat.

I noticed that in each story an air of loneliness trails after each character. Linking the collection seems to be an energy of private isolation. I imagined myself as a ghostly observer of Stamm’s characters. They are people you may not give a second glance to on the street. A young couple on the bus, a woman drawing as her small son plays, a man tending a farm. I felt like I was spying on these ordinary lives, and finished the stories knowing of some deep flaw, paralyzing secret, or past resentment. I noticed a pattern of Stamm introducing his characters through sparse and direct description, then lapsing into backstory to explain their dispositions. Very little is delivered in dialogue, and I couldn’t help but think that Stamm had made a case for the art of telling, and not showing, challenging that old and sturdy rule of writing fiction.

Expectations is where we begin, with a middle-aged single woman lusting after a younger man in her apartment building. Daphne listens intently to the creaks of the floorboards above her, the water flowing on and off. She longs for him, and when they strike up a pseudo-romantic friendship, she finds herself aware of her own movements, imagining him sensing her through the walls. This story sets a tone for the rest of the book, where the characters are in positions of decision, in the midst of new awareness. This first-person story rang snappier than the others, and showed off Stamm’s talent for dry and terse humor. The entire exchange is rendered completely through her voice, and we never drop completely into scene. Daphne commands the entire story and I felt happily strangled by her.

Many of the stories end abruptly, something I became accustomed to, but at first felt turned off by. Just as it seemed all the balls were successfully in the air, the story was over. Stamm’s practice is intentional; in a New York Times interview he said, “I usually don’t like to end a story with a punch line. It weakens the plot and turns the story upside down.” There are certainly no punch lines in this collection, but there are moments of hope. I was captured by the second-to-last piece, Sweet Dreams, where a young couple is experiencing the newness of living together. There is fear and doubt in them, but I was left with a feeling of minute happiness by the end. In Seven Sleepers, Alfons, a withdrawn and outcast farmer, finds companionship with a woman and invites her to his home. It does not go particularly well, but Stamm leaves the door open for a light to come in—just enough to not seem precious or cutely tied up, but rather to acknowledge how the ugly and dark moments of life often split to reveal a sense of evolution.

I suppose there was nothing shocking in We’re Flying, and I didn’t feel attached to many of the sentences on their own. But the slow and silent layering effect got to me. Stamm is a true artist here, and his stories require the reader to really listen. He asks you to see and hear his characters deeply—to look at the tiny patterns of a bleak landscape, or the intricate detail of a corkscrew wine opener. He has a knack for effortless symbolism, but he dodges any sense of intentional drama or sentimentality. Walk through these places, and delight in Stamm’s sure and unabated guidance.

Chelsea Bieker is a fiction writer currently at work on a collection of stories. Her work has recently appeared in The Normal School and The Collagist. Her review of Alan Hollinghurst's The Stranger's Child appeared in Propeller in the fall of 2011.