a review of
By Alexander MacLeod
Light Lifting is Alexander MacLeod’s award-winning debut collection of short fiction. It is a collection that should be consumed carefully; MacLeod so beautifully articulates everyday events that even the most normal (even mundane) occurrence becomes breathtaking. He takes his reader to a reality in which everything is nuanced. Every object, interaction and event has a beautiful poignancy to it, and it is in illuminating this beauty to his reader that MacLeod succeeds in breaking his reader’s hearts. A reader is left with the overwhelming sense that she has missed something in the real world; that within our reality is a capacity for depth and beauty that, somewhere along the line, we have grown to ignore. Through his collection, MacLeod seems to question why it is that we ignore these moments of everyday poignancy: have we chosen to ignore them, or is this blindness a learned behavior?
The question of why we ignore the poignancy of everyday life is explored in subtle ways through MacLeod’s entire collection, and is most richly detailed in his story “Wonder About Parents.” The piece captures an all-too familiar event in the life of many families: dealing with an outbreak of head lice. With tender consideration for the weariness of young parents at the end of their day, MacLeod captures a moment between a beaten-down pair:
I sit on the couch. Nothing for three minutes. Strange thick silence in the house. Water running in the pipes. The last two hours of a day. Aftermath. . . . Fold the rows of [my wife’s] hair with a skewer from the shish kebab set. Need to follow straight
lines. . . . She almost falls asleep. I pull an egg down the whole length of the shaft. Find one living insect, mature. Pluck it from her skin and watch it wriggle on my middle finger. Bring my thumb down hard. All the strength I can muster. The pressure between two points, crushing. I separate my fingers. The legs are stilled. Its body rests in a circle of her blood. Red seeps into my fingerprint. Parasite. Life sucked from our lives. (47-48)
MacLeod uses this moment of quiet desperation to develop a growing distance between the couple, artfully employing a sparse narration suggestive of a vast emptiness:
She touches her fingertips to her forehead and runs them from the hairline over her eyelids and down to her cheeks.
I’m going to go up now. Don’t you stay too long. Big day tomorrow.
This typical scene of distance between two people acts as a springboard into MacLeod’s exploration of everyday beauty. From this point in the piece, the reader is taken back to the very beginnings of this couple’s relationship; their haphazard, sexually-charged meeting and virile sex life is juxtaposed with vignettes depicting their inability to conceive children a few years later. Then, scenes of later years still, as they cope with a deathly sick infant – their first, after years of fertility treatments. Within this interplay of different time periods there is again the sense of desperation that MacLeod introduces at the beginning of his story: a deeply rooted need to be closer to one another, but the inability to completely connect. A perfectly human dilemma, one that MacLeod recognizes with utmost compassion.
A need for connection is woven throughout Light Lifting. Each of the seven stories within MacLeod’s collection hums with their own electric needs, though they always come down to the need to connect with something outside of oneself, and the difficulties inherent in forging a true, lasting connection.
The beauty of all things, sing the stories of Light Lifting, is that they can connect us. Events, conversations, objects, places and even commonplace experiences have the astounding ability to forge connection, even if only for a fleeting moment. MacLeod recognizes this, capturing those connective things and moments with heartfelt resonance, reveling in the beauty of what it means to be honestly human.
The weary parents with the sick daughter pass one another like ghosts in the hallway of the hospital, watching their little girl in shifts as “Wonder About Parents” winds to a close. They have been lacking connection for ages, aching as individuals while their daughter fights for her life. It is a marriage of strangers until:
Look up and see her at the end of the hall. Waiting by the elevator. Head shaking. The numbers descending. I call her name as I move, almost run, down the corridor in my sock feet. Meet her on the way. Kiss.
Stay, I say.
We go back. Squeeze onto the vinyl chair. Her legs between my legs. Arms hanging over the side. Heads touching. Everything forced together. (76)
A connection, finally. It is possible. It is beautiful.
This review appears in FreeFall Volume XXII Number 1 Winter 2012.