Labyrinths and Cathedrals: Outside Is The Ocean by Matthew Lansburgh

Jacqueline Kolosov
| Reviews

Outside Is the Ocean by Matthew Lansburgh (University of Iowa Press, 2017).
Winner of the 2017 Iowa Short Fiction Award, Matthew Lansburgh’s first collection possesses the satisfying reach and depth of a novel. The fractured chronology of its fifteen stories enacts the chaotic, sometimes traumatic experiences of the central characters—a German post-war immigrant named Heike and her vulnerable, fiercely intelligent, yet isolated son Stewart. Structurally, the collection returns the reader to a time, not so distant really, when people wrote letters and life was not so frenetically paced. Each of the stories has a date as part of its title. The earliest, “California (1967),” introduces thirty-year-old Heike, who arrives in California from Germany after the war. Almost half a century later, in “Enormous in the Moonlight (2014),” Heike writes to her now-estranged adult son, Stewart, addressing him as “Mein lieber Sohn” (My beloved Son). Her letter offers a window into who Heike is, and why: she acts and reacts with the vehemence of a child whose development was arrested during and after the war. At the same time, we see an old woman’s struggle—any mother’s struggle—to bear the fact that her son has abandoned her. The collection focuses on Heike and Stewart individually, and also, inevitably, on their intimacy as mother and son, a relationship that is dysfunctional yet at times devastatingly beautiful.

Enlarging further the generations and the reach of lives defined by war, there are the stories involving Galina, the Russian orphan whom Heike adopts later in life, rather whimsically and irresponsibly. Galina, born with only one arm, enters Outside Is the Ocean as a menacing child. Heike is totally incapable of raising Galina, though she somehow manages to do so with the help of a stepdaughter, another husband, and the other strays she pulls into her volatile circle. In one of the collection’s most profound scenes, Stewart, by then an assistant professor in an English department in Boston, tries to befriend and to understand Galina. His attempt is all the more powerful given the agony of his own childhood as Heike’s son.

As a central character and a complex, dangerous force, Heike is always a child of World War II Germany and also the vulnerable young woman who comes to the U.S. to realize a better life. This dream of America leads Heike to her first husband Raymond, Stewart’s father, a disturbed man who lives at the edge of a forest. In “House Made of Snow (1978),” Raymond forces a very young Stewart to read aloud from “Hansel and Gretel” on a cold winter night. When Stewart falters, his father sends the small child out into the snow. Raymond is a deadly character, one allied with Thanatos, and, in keeping with the archetypal, pagan feel of many of these stories, he calls to mind Goya’s image of Cronus devouring his young. As with many who commit acts of harm, Raymond is powerless in the larger world, which feeds into his misuse of his authority over those whom he should protect and love. As for Heike, like characters in the world of fairy tales, she is the vanishing or subconscious past, palpable and bizarre, and sometimes terrifyingly funny.

Jacqueline Kolosov is Professor of English at Texas Tech University where she directs The CH Foundation Arts for Healing Workshops and Programming, bringing the arts to at-risk populations in West Texas. Her third poetry collection is Memory of Blue (Salmon, 2014), and she coedited Family Resemblance: An Anthology and Exploration of Eight Hybrid Literary Genres, Winner of Foreword’s IndieFab Gold Medal in Writing (Rose Metal, 2015). She lives on 3 acres of pine trees and cactus with her horses, dogs & daughter.

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