Last week, while engaged in that long-forgotten pursuit so often overlooked by college students—reading for pleasure—I came across an unfamiliar word: anfractuosity. As a recent college graduate, newly minted English degree in hand, it was a little disheartening to discover that there are still an abundance of words whose definitions do not leap immediately to mind, despite said English degree clutched tightly to the chest like a small bird.
It’s a beautiful word. Anfractuosity is defined, as you might guess, as the state or quality of being anfractuous; full of windings and intricate turnings, tortuous. The journey into Ron Hansen’s remarkable collection is indeed an anfractuous one. The convoluted, circuitous trip through the nineteen stories of She Loves Me Not: New and Selected Stories leaves the reader feeling mystified, enriched, and occasionally wondering what on earth just happened, but the overarching feeling is of the profound mystery, heartbreak, and beauty that is the human experience.
The magic of Hansen’s storytelling is his ability to provide stark, poignant pictures of that experience while maintaining a style that is subtle, unsettling, and unpretentious. Though the nineteen component tales of She Loves Me Not are diverse in the extreme, arguably to the point of disjointedness, common patterns of connection and disconnection pierce each character, relationship, and setting to bind the disparate into an imperfect cohesion.
Ugliness, brutality, and violence hold enough prominence in Hansen’s collection that moments of human connection and redemption take on a precious kind of beauty. We encounter cows mysteriously eviscerated (“True Romance”) and a decapitation by chainsaw in the title story, “She Loves Me Not.” (The image on the cover of the collection, a black and white photo of a couple kissing, is almost playfully misleading.) These appalling moments of violence litter the pages, and in many of the stories, like “The Killers,” violence is not merely an accent but the axis around which the story turns. Hansen’s use of the element, however, is consistently an honest rather than indulgent one.
She Loves Me Not begins with a series of stories reprinted from his earlier collection Nebraska, published in 1989. Hansen selects seven from the previous collection and places them among the twelve new ones; the result is not a hodgepodge of recycled space-fillers alongside new material but a dynamic discovery of new dimensions of the same place.
One such reappearance is “Wickedness,” a brilliantly titled, episodic account of a terrible blizzard in 1888, which features Hansen’s most grippingly stark and sensuous attention to detail. The storm itself becomes a harbinger of naturalistic doom and intentional cruelty, a conscious, evil thing: “Wind tortured a creekside cottonwood until it cracked apart.” Yet the most unsettling element of the blizzard is the human response to it, as if the impartial brutality of the storm seeps into the farmers and townspeople and destroys something fundamental. Convinced they will all freeze to death, a father kills his wife and seven children, “stopping twice to capture a scuttling boy and stopping once more to reload,” driven, it seems, by the same sort of blind and vicious devastation as the blizzard itself. Hansen utterly divorces himself from sentimentality and all its vestiges, detailing every snapshot with the cold, analytical realism of a documentary.
I was struck again and again by Hansen’s ability to convey what it feels like to be human, what it is like to be alive—the brokenness, the bitterness, and the relentlessness of beauty. In “A Hazard of New Fortunes,” we encounter a young man so paralyzed by his own spiritual deadness that he seeks almost literal resuscitation from Sally, a lonely nurse with a disfigured arm who lives downstairs: “’Kiss me,’ he said. ‘I’m dying. I’m dead.’”
Hansen explores that common thirst for connection that both unites humankind and drives them apart, and he is at his best when he writes in the most realistic of veins. Perhaps this is why the fairytale-like magic realism of “Wilderness” falls a bit flat, cats and dogs weaving in and out, its characters switching places in a sort of disjointed Red Riding Hood archetype. You aren’t quite sure what’s happening, if it is happening at all. It pales in comparison with the raw emotion of a story like “The Sparrow,” which chronicles the grief of a family slowly recovering from the sudden loss of a mother and wife in a gentle, unembellished way that lingered long after I turned its final pages.
Whether you choose to barrel headlong through the collection, drawn irresistibly from one story into the next as I was, or enjoy each one like a separate dish to be savored on its own, you will find a collection that is dense, artfully crafted, and doesn’t hesitate to look darkness in the eye, invite it in, and call it by name.
Back to that word, anfractuosity, which has now become one of my favorites. I first found it in C.S. Lewis’s The Problem of Pain: “If any message from the core of reality ever were to reach us, we should expect to find in it just that unexpectedness, that willful, dramatic anfractuosity which we find in the Christian faith.” Hansen’s willful, unexpected, anfractuous storytelling opens a window to that core of reality, a gate to some fundamental truth of the human life and its deepest yearning, where flawed human beings somehow become vessels of redemption and hope.
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