Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day. By Ben Loory. Penguin. $15.
Dorothy Parker famously and scathingly said of a Katherine Hepburn performance that the actress ran “the gamut of emotions from A to B,” and at first glance a similar comment could be made about Ben Loory’s 40-story collection. But the remark would, although witty and in some ways accurate, be as unfair as Parker’s critique of Hepburn. For although it is true that the same voice undeniably produces all of these little stories, and the same sensibility pervades them, what that sensibility is is slippery at best. Loory writes in a way that invites contradictions in terms: outré mundanity, exceptional ordinariness, calm hysteria, logical illogic. His short stories – and they are very short, averaging about five pages apiece, with several only three pages long and a couple on a single page – are generally imbued with a kind of gentle surrealism. Thus, “The Martian” includes a Martian, who is never described and who hangs around doing mundane things, such as cooking; while “The Little Girl and the Balloon” involves a dream that becomes reality (a frequent theme in these tales) in a way that would be frightening if the telling were not so matter-of-fact.
Indeed, Loory’s main stylistic characteristic is narration that is so matter-of-fact that the strangeness of his topics barely has a chance to register before the story is over. “The Ferris Wheel” seems like a fantasy/mystery until it becomes a love story with Loory’s typical dream/reality confusion; “The Snake in the Throat” is a chilling piece whose unpleasant theme is leavened by its dreamlike quality; “The Tree” is a kind of old-fashioned monster-movie story, from the monster’s point of view – assuming it is a monster; “UFO: A Love Story” is just what the title says, and includes lines that, taken out of the context of this particular tale, neatly describe Loory’s stories in general: “We don’t understand! the announcer is saying. We don’t understand what we just saw! We don’t understand what on earth is happening! We don’t know what’s real anymore!”
That, in a nutshell, is what Loory does with these short-shorts: he makes it hard to understand what is happening (even when he describes events carefully), and he blurs the line between real and not-real. He is well aware that this is a science-fictional device: a one-page story here is called “On the Way Down: A Story for Ray Bradbury.” But even though Loory shares some of Bradbury’s penchant for blurring reality and dream, he is nothing like Bradbury as a stylist. Bradbury’s prose often reads like poetry, while Loory’s is quite straightforward even when dealing with sensibilities that are distinctly odd: “The television thinks it knows better than the family that’s sitting there staring at it. Why do they watch this garbage? it thinks. It’s so empty – so stupid, so dumb.”
Loory divides this book into three sections of 13 stories each, plus an appendix containing a single tale (the longest in the book), and there are some thematic differences among the sections (the first being, by and large, the least interesting). But despite this superficial organization, Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day is really all of a piece: strange, skewed, oddball, and frequently puzzling. The stories are not really profound: they go by so quickly that they scarcely have time to be profound. But they are almost all unusual and interesting, and some are thought-provoking, such as “The Magic Pig,” in which a pig statue miraculously appears on a dining-room table, perhaps proving the existence of God, but all the man whose table it is can tell the pilgrims who show up to wonder at the miracle is, “I believe something happened, yes…but I don’t know what it was, or why.” Readers may not know exactly what happens, or exactly why, in many of Loory’s stories, but that something happens, they will be quite certain.