Reviewed by Karen Schmidt
You have most likely heard of them. Tales of an ape-like beast hiding in the forests of the Pacific Northwest or legends of a prehistoric monster lurking deep in Loch Ness. These stories come from all over the world, and whether they are of the mokele-mbembe of the Congo or the cries of lemurs in Madagascar that turn your body to stone, there is no doubt that this is the type of folklore that binds all people together. This is especially true in the short stories of Laura van den Berg’s debut collection, What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us.
Through eight stories, van den Berg guides the reader all over the world, delivering lush details leading the reader from the city streets of Chicago to Amazonian jungles and every place in between, all while offering a taste of each region’s folklore. To say this is a collection of legends and fables, however, would be entirely misleading. The ancient tales of spirits and lake monsters merely dance around the edges of van den Berg’s characters’ lives, providing a rich background and a fleeting opportunity to grasp at a deeper connection. While the first story introduces the creature’s impact on daily life with an unmistakable roar, by the final page, the legends have been reduced to whispers in the background, their effects rarely seen but strongly felt. Her stories are first and foremost about everyday people struggling to pull themselves together and find their way through personal tragedy. Perhaps her greatest success in melding the commonplace with tales of the exceptional is in the opening story, “Where We Must Be.” Here we find a failed actress quite literally embodying the essence of Big Foot by dressing as the creature for a summer job and allowing tourists to either hunt, or be hunted by her. It soon becomes clear however, that as she becomes Big Foot, she is using the mask to relieve her own frustrations and the loneliness she is unable to express in her day-to-day life. This balance between the comedic nature of her work, and the desperation of her situation, is the perfect introduction to the isolated tone of the entire collection, easing the reader slowly into what later becomes a very lonely affair.
The second story, “Goodbye My Loveds,” continues to balance the comic and the tragic well, but as the stories progress, the tone becomes steeped in more and more sadness. By the time we reach the titular and final story, it feels that all sense of the comedic has been lost in favor of a bleak look into lives that exist only to show how alienated people can become. The promise of finding a connection with others through folklore and mythical creatures becomes non-existent, and it seems as if all that is left is an oppressive loneliness.
Overall, What the World Will Look Like is a very strong if occasionally depressing collection. The language moves lyrically across the page, van den Berg’s passages slowly coaxing you into empathy: “When a dark something moved in front of the window, the object was too large to identify; I only saw pieces and parts of a giant mass. And it was not fear that I felt, but a wanting.” If you happen to be the type that doesn’t shy away from loneliness, there is no better book to pick up today.Posted on December 3, 2009 at 3:20 PM