It’s hard to admit to yourself that you’ve just read something you utterly don’t understand. With something like a physics textbook, or even a philosophical essay, the incomprehension with which you absorb the material seems more acceptable than when dealing with something like prose fiction, where the assumption (i.e., the cultural pressure) is that you can power your way through it with at least some vague interpretation. Pick a lens and go! seems to be the band-aid solution. Visual media are the same way: I sure as hell needed to consult Wikipedia to make sure I understood the intricacies of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, but I still understood the nuances of camera work, music, characterization. Sometimes that’s sufficient, and “counts” as having grasped the art you’ve consumed.
But sometimes you are just all out of band-aids, and that’s how I felt when reading Steven Gillis’ short story collection, The Law of Strings. The first story came to its final page to my surprise, as I literally hadn’t assumed I had gotten to the meat of the story yet, or any of the action. Gillis will do that, and seemingly by design: I was consistently thrown off in just the same way by every story to follow. Author Michael Griffith blurbs that Gillis “[explores] the intersections between quantum physics and everyday ethics, between cosmic law and domestic habit,” and that’s the most beautiful and true description I could’ve hoped for. But does recognizing those intersections in Gillis’s stories mean that I have sufficiently grasped each one? Is it enough to walk away from it recognizing beauty, while still being frustrated by the impotence of stories seemingly without endings?
Take the titular story in the collection. While Lange and Eva are at a party, the latter realizes the vast cosmic potential she carries for leaving her mate in search of someone else (this is discovered through a desire to cheat on Lange with someone else at said party). Her reaction, then, is to chain herself to their bed, since monogamy is such a fragile arrangement that it deserves to be protected by any external means necessary. Gillis’s characters are brief, but say much between their dialogue.
Lange ran a fresh stretch of string around her wrists, was uncomfortable, tentative. Eva noticed, looked at the space between Lange’s fingers, the gap created, she told him to try harder, said, “Would you rather I go?”
This story, like every other story in the collection, purposely calls back constantly to its chemical and quantum roots. To make the point as precisely as he wants to, Gillis is not afraid of making at least one person in each story a nuclear physicist or professor or doctor – and given the ambitious parallels he has created, I won’t write that decision off as distracting. The language of science, after all, is a quite beautiful one not heard often enough in marketable prose, and if it distracts, it’s only because it’s a rarity that one is so lucky to hear it.
Causation was broken into two components: causal connection and causal priority, with the space between described by Thomas Hausman as “the undefined intuitive notion of a nomilogical linkage.” All of this was rudimentary, before the real work began, and the point where I tended to get lost. At its root, I understood how no two interactions were identical, that observation altered and created the universe individually for its observer….
You’d think these are the moments of each story where you start getting lost, but they’re actually the essential metrics by which we can view each story in full. That “space between” can be found even in the titles of each story, the grammatical construction implying (and applying) such gaps: “What We Wonder When Not Sure,” “The Things We Cling To When Holding On,” “What Gives When Things Are Asked For.”
I admit I still exited each one vastly confused, due to undetermined endings, cameras that pan away at the crucial moment being built up throughout the rest of the brief, momentary story arcs. But the science is a yardstick, a checkpoint, and a clear indication that this is a book to read both slowly and at least twice. Gillis employs a process that would make Hausman proud, since his expansions and contractions of plot remind us of the fact that, really, nothing is promised, and that any sense of what we are owed by reading a story is merely a perceived one.
Maybe more stories should be written this way; I’m not sure. The Law of Strings, as it delves deeper, builds a stronger and stronger case for the presence of the extraordinary within the mundane, and not in a way that’s comfortable, either. People living in dog cages to experiment with empathy, wives who disappear from the earth without a trace, a boy who wakes up floating – if the plots sound like fantasy, it is instead only the extreme end of a given scientific theory fully realized. Characterized for our convenience, in fact, and that’s why I wonder if more books could or should be written the way these stories are. Maybe it’s something whose punch can only be packed for a few pages at a time. Maybe a novel with the same aims would falter.
I have my own personal issues with the way women are portrayed in this book, since they always appear to be bored with their men, suffering internally and misunderstood by men, or so bleedingly empathetic that they can’t function in reality. But it’s a lot easier to absorb them as characters of these worlds if we agree that The Law of Strings is best at establishing its own tweaked realities, ones where, yes, women might chain themselves to beds and their men might help them secure the locks. Or, it is our reality, but one that’s allowed to explore the far ends of the scope of possibility – and what’s least comforting about that world is how much it resembles our own uncharted one.
Gillis has created here something lovely and exhausting. Even in the moments where this art leaves me in the dust, I am happy to watch it speed on ahead, deserving of whatever recognition and audience it finds.