Daniel Davis Wood reviews Linda Mannheim’s This Way to Departures
Linda Mannheim’s second collection of stories, This Way to Departures, is appropriately titles. All the stories in Mannheim’s début, Above Sugar Hill (2014), were bound to a specific site: the ethnically mixed, economically deprived neighbourhood of Washington Heights in Manhattan, hemmed in by the Hudson River on one side and the Harlem River on the other. Set mostly between the 1970s and 1990s, Above Sugar Hill is an assured evocation of a very particular time and place — the streets of Mannheim’s youth, in an era of “squalor” and “brutality” — although it lacks the dexterity of style with which it might have offset the feeling that some of its stories are hobbled by the limited horizons of the locale. In This Way to Departures, however, Mannheim embraces a broader canvas and takes a bolder approach to the form of the short story. Although the new book still retains connections to Washington Heights, the action here extends across the United States, down into South America, and even briefly overseas to Europe, and there are comparatively more formal innovations and provocations. As a whole, the collection reads like the work of an increasingly ambitious and confident writer, striking off in a range of new directions.
Within just a few pages of the first story, ‘Noir’, Mannheim thoroughly destabilises the realism that prevailed throughout Above Sugar Hill. The narrator of ‘Noir’ is a young woman from New York who has moved to Miami to make her reputation as a neighbourhood reporter on the Record. The year is 1986. Miami has already seen more than three hundred murders, many of them related to recriminations amongst exiles, refugees, and assassins from war-torn El Salvador. But the narrator is also involved in a rocky relationship that colours her view of her own capabilities as a young journalist, and her discussions with her boyfriend, Sam, also colour the reader’s view of her methods as she goes about telling her story. One of the first things she reveals is that she and Sam adore Hollywood movies, often improvising melodramatic dialogue in their comedic exchanges at home. But although the two of them exchange “a stack of movie jokes”, the narrator insists that “it was noir that we came back to again and again, noir that we loved — film noir, with its shadows and horizontal lines and slats of light seen through venetian blinds.” And, tellingly, the narrator also finds something alluring about the conventional structure of noir narratives:
Everyone’s corrupt. Danger and death wait in each vacant room. Lovers betray one another. … And the story is told entirely in flashback. It starts with the end, the protagonist telling the police what happened, and you, who are watching, know, as the story unfolds, that there is no hope in this situation — everything has already happened and there isn’t a damn thing anyone can do about it.
Given that ‘Noir’ itself is told in flashback, and that it’s full of corruption, danger, death, and betrayal, we can never be quite sure whether the narrator is meeting a reporter’s ethical obligation to tell the truth or whether she’s embellishing things, darkening the shadows for dramatic effect. This becomes even more apparent when she considers the self-suspicious warnings of a senior reporter: “you look for what’s lost because you’re lost”, he says, pointing straight at her capacity for distorting her own understanding of the events she records. And it comes to prominence when the narrator’s knowledge of film noir allows her to see the ways in which fantasy has already overwritten reality in the places she visits:
Key Largo wanted all the connection it could get to the Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall film, but the last movie they made together was mostly shot on a studio lot in Hollywood, and until it was released, the land we stood on was still called Rock Harbor. Local business owners lobbied to name their town after a fictional hurricane-hit island. … Then we saw the boat — it was called The Wrong Impression.
While ‘Noir’ embroils the narrator in a conspiracy of silence involving Salvadoran death squads, and builds at a rapid pace to a tense climax of cinematic thrills, its real pleasures emerge from the combination of these features with its manipulation of genre. ‘Noir’ is a work of noir indeed, but the noir genre, in ‘Noir’, is known and beloved for its artifice. Which of this reporter’s supposedly factual revelations have therefore been warped by her fondness for a genre? Like the viewers of a noir film, we can never really be sure; we have to make peace with uncertainty, learn to live with our doubts about apparent truths.
Other stories spark with the energy of other manoeuvres in literary form. These manoeuvres are such that it’s difficult to pinpoint a single a highlight from the eleven stories in This Way to Departures: there are at least half-a-dozen. In ‘Missing Girl, 5, Gone Fifteen Months’, we watch a political scandal unfold from a perspective of disturbing detachment. A five-year-old girl in care of social services disappears, but nobody notices for more than a year. This stunning case of malpractice attracts public outrage, vitriol, summonses and hearings, the pointing of fingers and the passing of the buck. But Mannheim depicts the unfolding events entirely through fragments of dispassionate reportage, drained of all fervour and zeal and therefore upsetting an emotional investment in the girl’s wellbeing. The main players are referred to only by their social functions: “the girl”, “the mother”, “the foster mother”, “the case worker”, “the detective”, and “the reporter”, and then, as the scandal grows, “the child advocate”, “the Secretary of the Department”, “the presidential hopeful”. The dialogue is largely bureaucratic, almost scripted, full of evasions and non-denial denials, and the time signature places the story in the strange realm of the not-quite-now: the prose adopts the present tense, sentence by sentence, but it describes things that have already happened, things better suited to the pluperfect. The effect is trancelike, sometimes hallucinatory, as we are privy to the inner workings of the investigation but remain removed from the people who conduct it — as we are stylistically and tonally kept at a distance from a gross injustice we come to know in intimate detail.
Just as impressive are ‘Waiting for Daylight’ and ‘The Young Woman Sleeps While the Artist Paints Her’, a back-to-back pair of stories about different forms of vulnerability and exploitation. In the first story, a young woman, again from New York, finds herself winning a place at a New England college. She comes from a poor family and is a recipient of a merit scholarship. This makes her feel insecure at the best of times, being surrounded by wealthier and more self-entitled peers, but then she is confronted with — or, rather, paralysed by — the sexual advances of the academic dean. Although she is very clearly not at fault for anything that happens to her, she spends so much of the first part of the story justifying her own presence that the structure alone primes the reader to sense what the story never says: without downplaying the immorality of the abuse, this young woman sees her exploitation as a grotesque form of debt repayment for the opportunities she has been given. In the second story, another young woman, also from New York, pays for tuition at a private college by posing as a model in life drawing classes, selling access to her body in exchange for education. As in ‘Missing Girl’, however, the participants in the action are depersonalised — “the young woman”, “the artist”, “the writing instructor”, “the famous poet” — and there’s a delicate, dreamlike quality to the chronology, as most of the story takes place in a mercurial timeframe punctuated by the refrain of the title: “the young woman sleeps while the artist paints her”. The final lines offer a masterclass in controlled ambiguity. As the young woman beholds the artist’s work, it is impossible for the reader to tell whether she regards it as a shocking violation or an act of profound generosity.
Then, too, there are a few flirtations with metafiction, of a few different varieties. In ‘The Christmas Story’, a narrator who is also a writer composes a story to suit an unnamed reader’s specifications: “I started to write what you asked me to write: a story for your daughters, for Rosa and Emma. Because they cannot read anything of mine that’s published, I said, okay, I’ll write them a Christmas story.” But the story runs away from the narrator, making a mockery of the innocence she aims at, and delves into a situation involving a cast of characters who all refuse to conform to the types assigned to them. In ‘Dangers of the Sun’, a tragic case of medical malpractice results in a court trial that complicates the competing stories of its participants. Cause and effect are reversed, culpability becomes agency, and the narrator explicitly anticipates her audience’s responses to particular events — only to then undercut them. And in ‘Facsimiles’, arguably the most affecting story in the collection, a photocopy clerk in downtown Manhattan makes duplicates of missing persons posters in the days after September 11, 2001. The narrator’s confusions end up toying with notions of narrative validity and significance. Every missing person is irreducibly unique, and their whereabouts is of the utmost important to their loved ones, but the narrator’s job is to make uniform reproductions of all these people until, in her mind, their fates blur and intermingle. As time goes on, the posters are drained of their distinctiveness; no one missing person’s story is any more or less important than any other’s. Yet the narrator has her own story of a missing person to tell, which is also the story of having evaded a potentially very different life, and it is difficult for her to know what significance her story holds, objectively, as she watches it sink into this sea of supposedly singular lost souls.
Of course, not all of Mannheim’s achievements rest on formal conceits. The title story, set in the 1980s, is a compelling, unsettling example of conventional realism at its best. Here, a marriage falls apart, and maybe falls into place again, or else falls into a state of begrudging accommodation: a man who is a committed socialist leaves his wife to move to Nicaragua, to assist the Sandinistas, then returns to her — too late? — when his new life turns sour. Equally, though, the less substantial and less satisfying stories in This Way to Departures are those that hew close to realist conventions. ‘Butterfly McQueen on Broadway’ tells the story of an African American actress who is stereotyped, ostracised, and finally left in a destitute state. It’s a sad tale, gracefully told, but more akin to Mannheim’s earlier stories, particularly since it echoes the first story in Above Sugar Hill, ‘Marilyn Monroe on 165th Street’. ‘The Place That He Can Never Return To’ is a sketch of life in exile, of wartime displacement and intergenerational memory, while its counterpart, ‘The World’s Fair’, touches on fantasies of reverse emigration among the disadvantaged children of refugees. Both, on their own terms, are sensitive pieces of prose, evocative of great pity, though they feel out of place amidst the longer, more complex stories. Mannheim is skilled at straightforward narratives, but this is no great revelation: Above Sugar Hill proved it already. The few slim stories in the new collection feel like further proof where it isn’t needed, a slight drag on the momentum of Mannheim’s ascent to fresh heights.
On the whole, though, This Way to Departures is replete with rewards. It isn’t a groundbreaking book, but it is one that repeatedly takes risks, exploring the possibilities that become available to a skilled writer when she takes flight from the territory she’d seemed to settle on. Each story delivers on its implicit promises: narratives are developed and resolved, if sometimes resolved in uncertainty, and creative constraints are adopted to purposeful, powerful effect — not just for the thrill of creative play. The result is rarely uplifting, since the departures of the title refer also to Mannheim’s characters’ movements away from one another, away from meaningful connection, but such is ordinary life in this author’s atomised world. What salvation there is comes from Mannheim’s sober sensibility — her respectful attentiveness to unspoken hopes and secret shames, private confusions and falterings of faith — and the variations in her style with which she does justice to the particular concerns of her people. Her efforts throughout This Way to Departures court her own vulnerabilities as a writer, though she does not waver. In her poise there is an aesthetic maturity only hinted at in Above Sugar Hill, and enough to raise hopes that this departure in fact marks the beginning of a longer sojourn into the heart of unexplored terrain.