Judge Spotlight: Laura van den Berg

by Cassidy McCants

We’re happy to announce that this year’s judge for the Nimrod Katherine Anne Porter Prize for Fiction is Laura van den Berg, whose first novel, Find Me, was selected as a “Best Book of 2015” by NPR and was longlisted for the 2016 International Dylan Thomas Prize. Laura will join us in October for our Conference for Readers and Writers, along with poetry judge Jericho Brown, literary agent Mark Gottlieb, mystery writer Deborah Crombie, and memoirist Sasha Martin—and we’ll announce more guests soon.

To celebrate, I’ve just read and reread van den Berg’s There Will Be No More Good Nights Without Good Nights, a slim collection of stories published by Origami Zoo Press in 2012. I chose this book because I’m fascinated by the flash fiction form (a flash piece is a story told in no more than 2,000 words, according to The Review Review), but I think this collection would appeal to anyone who seeks out character-based stories. In just thirty-six pages, van den Berg brings us into nine different worlds, each distinctly its own and all inhabited by characters contemplating the meaning of family and struggling to connect with their loved ones—or to cope with the “plaguing dissatisfaction” brought on by the loss of those they’ve loved (“Something Thrilling and Heroic and Strange”).

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In the title story, the manager of a horse stable is unsettled upon discovering someone has been coming into the barn at night. When she tells a police officer she plans to sit in the office and wait for the intruder, he tells her she needs to act responsibly because she’s a mother. Van den Berg’s close third-person narrator follows this interaction with a simple and telling truth: “The thing she hated the most about living in a small town was everyone knowing what you are.” Not who but what. The woman, whose name is not mentioned in the story, obsesses over the safety of her child, but a mother isn’t who she is. This unnerves her the way the intruder does—to calm herself she goes outside every night and beats snow off the rhododendrons in her yard, never really sure if it does “more harm than good,” a worry we come to guess is one of her most persistent preoccupations.

In “Photography,” after her husband’s death, a woman named Lenore gets into the habit of watching her neighbors take photos in their living room. With their windows open, as though they haven’t considered the possibility of someone watching, the husband acts as photographer while the wife poses as a model. Lenore loves watching because she’s always had difficulty making things beautiful: “her paintings never came out right; the petals were always smudged, the water too dark,” writes van den Berg. Lenore comes to learn that the husband intentionally makes the photos look ugly by “turn[ing] his wife’s body into an alien landscape,” and the piece becomes a quiet meditation on the impermanence of all kinds of beauty.

The element of voyeurism struck me in “Photography,” especially as I moved on to the following stories, when I realized I felt somewhat voyeuristic while reading the pieces. The characters in this collection are so expertly developed, so clearly understood by van den Berg—the glimpses into their lives are intimate and strange, and to dive into these stories feels almost like peeking in on the personal lives of my own neighbors. But what saves me from feeling like an ogler is that the people here are undoubtedly van den Berg’s creation. I love that she knows these characters well enough to make me question my boundaries as a reader.

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Van den Berg deals with fine lines like this in each of the stories: in “The Golden Dragon Express,” a woman enjoys a moral upper hand over her cheating husband until she disparages him too much during a game of Monopoly, causing a turning of the tables; in “There Will Be No More Good Nights Without Good Nights,” the mother is concerned with how subtle the differences can be between harm and good, between safety and danger, between humans and animals; and in “Photography,” both beauty—however it may be defined—and life last until suddenly they don’t. And with these short pieces van den Berg herself establishes the line between tenderness and sentimentality.

There’s so much more to say about the collection, despite its small size. I can’t wait to speak with Laura in October, to hear her read, to learn more about how to say all that needs to be said within the confines of short-short stories like these.

Author photo by Paul Yoon (American Short Fiction)

Cassidy McCants, an Associate Editor of Nimrod, is an M.F.A. candidate in fiction at Vermont College of Fine Arts.

 

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