Book Review

Elephants in Our Bedroom by Michael Czyzniejewski

Elephants in Our Bedroom by Michael Czyzniejewski

“All of a sudden, nobody can explain wind. For better or worse, we’ve experienced wind, for years,” Michael Czyniejewski begins his collection of affecting short stories, Elephants In Our Bedroom. “Centuries,” he continues, “Always. The whole time, we just assumed someone knew where it came from, that scientists, the meteorologists probably, maybe even Da Vimci, someone had written it down somewhere. Wind is a type of weather cause by ___. Not so. There’s nothing -- no encyclopedia entries, no conjecture, not even attempts to explain it. Other weather, we have the data, the answer to the question. How hot or cold it is mostly depends on how close we are to the sun, while rain is a build-up of moisture in the air. Snow, well, that’s just cold. Wind, though, we never knew. Ever.”

Czyzniejewski’s deft writing moves us just as inexplicably. And why it moves us one cannot be entirely sure about. Or why, despite the ambitious sweep of so many other books out there, this kind of quiet work stands out, stirring something within the reader deeper than just admiration for another’s author’s virtuoso skills.

Czyzniejewski’s work builds without authorial grandiosity, blowing gently on our faces and into us, tickling and teasing us into feelings. It offers identification with its people, not submission to an author’s distanced, but blustering bravado. His characters are lost within life’s more ordinary moments, and their moments are made shockingly extraordinary -- whether experienced within some fantastical framework or presented simply and naturally, in his easy-going style. And because Czyzniejewski is such a good writer, the reality of his stories -- surreal, absurd or naturalistic -- soon becomes our own emotional habitat, too.

A modest writer, Czyzniejewski has a tender sleight-of-hand. Yet he can pound right into us. A child falls off a chair while watched by a father estranged from his wife, the child’s mother, who abandoned him in his marriage. On a Valentine’s Day -- the holiday of eros and romance -- a husband tries to ponder why his wife always goes to her gynaecologist instead of staying home to make love to him. He then visits the said gynaecologist’s office to find it an overwhelmingly barren place, which makes her visits to the doctor on Valentine’s Day even more perplexing to him. As in the first story, Wind, we stop to appreciate all that can be packed in these moments, the questions of life pass through us in an instant, inexplicable but rich with substance and meaning. What is the inner world of amorphous feelings and bonds really made off? What is wind? For a few literary seconds, this gifted writer makes us feel their weight in the air, within our grasp.

These stories are often wry, sometimes dark, absurd and otherworldly but they are always thrown and spun from edgy centers, seducing us and asking us confront the outrageous anxiety-ridden and elusive truths that usually glide by our awareness, unacknowledged but omnipresent the whole time. This all works because there isn’t an ounce of meanness or falseness in these stories. Nor are there any emotional artifices, despite a set-up of surrealities. The stories also refuse to be conclusive, or tied up neatly into convenient bundles -- they exist as passing breezes, unhindered by overworked prose.

What Czyzniejewski has achieved as narrative structure can also be considered as Hapax Legomenon. Czyniejewski explains Hapax Legomenon thus: “A word or form of which only one instance is recorded in a literature or an author...”

The last thing I remember before blacking out was the phantom opossum pissing on my egg,” begins his one story actually entitled: Hapax Legomenon, “Regaining consciousness, I can see a light at the end of a tunnel and I assume that I am dead...” “One Saturday last June, my lover lost her name,” he tells us in another story, called. Unbuttoning each other’s shirts, her working up, me working down, the feeling hit me first, a weird air of unfamiliarity. “Who are you?” I had to ask. My lover stopped, stared up. and answered, “I don’t know”. “ In another, the title story, The Elephant in Our Bedroom, he writes: “Not long ago I won an elephant in a card game and now I keep him in my bedroom. As baffling as it seems, my wife hasn’t said a word. It’s been like that between us, not talking to each other, though if anything it would induce conversation, I would’ve thought it would be the elephant in the corner of the room. But it hasn’t come up, not the noise, the grocery bills, the leveled furniture, not even the shit, which I have to admit is pretty bad.” Some stories are more whimsical and light-hearted than others, some quite dark and grave, taking on situations of loss, heartbreak, and suicide. Then there are some so fantastical one marvels at how skillfully he manages to keep the reader so firmly there, believing every word. All of the tales in this brilliant, quiet book are wrought from an enormous heart. And all refract and reflect a new kind illumination from the ordinary experiences of everyday love and intimacy. As if in intimate conversation with us, Czyniejewski also makes us like him, the writer himself, I mean. We recognize, despite all the extremes he depicts, our own elusive shocks of being. We feel the moments which usually just pass up by. They are, at last, given the gravity and space they deserve to carry into the center of our consciousness. Perhaps, this is true about Dzanc Books, too, and its quiet emergence into the publishing world. This publisher is new and exciting and innovating, offering a way to get through our current publishing climate. Along with its publishing program, Dzanc is developing community outreach programs to work within an established non-profit model.  Dzanc seems to be operating as a kind of much-needed conscience somewhere in the atmosphere, reminding us of all we have lost in the profit-driven hype which has swallowed real literary ambition. This all feels magical to me, and is gaining recognition in the States as a new direction in publishing.  Dzanc has collected up some formidable talents to publish, too, among them: Yannick Murphy, Roy Kesey, Dawn Raffel, and Jonathan Baumbach. Their mission statement reads: "Dzanc Books was created in 2006 to advance great writing and champion those writers who don't fit neatly into the marketing niches of for-profit presses. As a non-profit, 501(c)3 organization, Dzanc Books not only publishes excellent books of literary fiction, but works in partnership with literary journals to advance their readership at every level. Dzanc is also fully committed to developing educational programs in the schools and has begun organizing many such workshops and Writers In Residency programs." It’s my hope Dzanc will continue to show us not only a solution to our publishing crisis, but a new light, a new wind weaving through the atmosphere, which, this time, we simply will not be able to overlook.

-- Reviewed by Leora Skolkin-Smith on 02/03/2001

Further Information
ISBN-10: 097931237X
ISBN-13: 9780979312373
Publisher: Dzanc Books
Publication Date: 01/02/2009
Binding: Paperback
Number of pages: 197

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