None of us can exist in isolation. But that doesn’t mean we don’t try. People navigate interactions with each other through careful boundaries set up between themselves and others, wary not to get too close, to see something too private. But what happens when the private becomes public? When one crosses the boundary and views something personal–intimate–about a stranger? This is the subject of Tara Laskowski’s Bystanders.
Bystanders is a book of thirteen short stories told from the perspective of characters on the fringes of the scene. In the first story, “The Witness,” a woman sees a car crash and becomes obsessed not with the young boy whose bike “crumple[s] under the front wheels as though fake, made of foil” but with instead with the driver, who vomits behind his car for nobody but her to see. In “The Monitor,” a new mother named Myra embroils herself with the lives of her neighbors when her baby monitor’s signal gets crossed with a neighbor’s and starts projecting disturbing images. “Death Wish” relates the story of a woman who cannot stop thinking about a coworker’s murder. In one of the most nuanced stories in the collection, “There’s Someone Behind You,” a middle-aged man’s mistress becomes witness to his failing marriage. This tale begins with a ghost story, and by the end, the main character is almost a ghost herself. While each story is different and follows unique characters, the plots follow a common arc: the events each character witnesses seeps deeply into their personal lives, often becoming a sort of obsession and even isolating the character from his or her loved ones.
Each story is as engaging and original as the next, and as the characters become more and more invested in the unfolding mysteries, so does the reader. The stories move quickly, with just enough mystery to keep readers on their toes. The prose is tight and efficient, but not without style. The suburban is juxtaposed deftly with the eerie. Small turns of phrase make mundane settings feel unnervingly off. In one section, a character describes her breastfeeding child as “rooting around [her] breasts in the middle of the night like a parasite.” It is smart details like these that make Bystanders literary writing for readers who don’t like literary writing.
By the end of the collection, Bystanders appears to propose a new view of literature as a whole–for the characters in the stories are not the only bystanders. In fact, the ultimate bystanders are the readers, who follow the characters’ thoughts and emotions in intimate detail. With each page the reader turns, she becomes more and more implicated in the process–just as the characters she reads about, she delves deeper into the mystery, striving for a fleeting moment of human connection, of true understanding. Although in the collection this quest at times seems obsessive and perhaps a bit morbid, the connections it forges result in a self-reflection that ultimately allow both the characters and the readers a sense of much-needed catharsis.