by Amina Gautier
The Elixir Press, 2016
A professor at the University of Miami and author of nearly 100 short stories, Amina Gautier has steadily established herself as a contemporary master of the form. Her three story collections have all been prize-winners: The Flannery O’Connor Award for At-Risk, The Prairie Schooner Prize for Now We Will Be Happy, and The Elixir Prize for her latest collection, The Loss of All Lost Things. In this new book, all of Gautier’s considerable talents are on display. The collection demonstrates a remarkable range of voices and points-of-view and, as the title suggests, very self-consciously dramatizes multiple conceptions of loss—the loss of children, spouses, work, and inevitably the sense of one’s own identity.
In the opening story, “Lost and Found,” a young boy has been abducted from his home by a stranger, a person he refers to only as “Thisman.” The situation is every parent’s nightmare: the child is taken, abused, and psychologically manipulated. He is drugged as they move from location to location—“borrowed houses” and motel rooms—where he is tied to chairs with rope. In the one moment when Thisman seems to forget to bind him, we discover that he has changed the numbers on the phone so that the boy’s attempt to call home fails. Most heartbreaking, however, is the way Thisman makes the boy believe he has been abandoned and forgotten by his family, culminating in a moment when the child thinks, “They wouldn’t want him now anyway, since he’s no longer a good boy” (3). In fact, the first half of this story is bleak, showing the reader a child who has been entirely victimized.
At this lowest point, some small hope is finally offered. To pass the time, Thisman and the boy watch television. Thisman’s favorite show is The Twilight Zone. In one episode, a child is able to control all the adults in his town; they fear him and obey all his wishes. The moment is a small revelation for the boy, who now begins to imagine what it would be like for a child to exercise such power. Nevertheless, it is to language that Gautier turns—to semantics—as a vehicle to save him. The boy is careful with the language he chooses to describe his abduction:
“He prefers the word lost instead of taken. Lost is much much better. Things that are taken are never given back. Things that are lost can be found. He doesn’t like to think of himself as a stolen thing, taken away in plain sight of his own home, plucked from the curb like a penny found on the sidewalk.” (5)
This small linguistic reframing—not “taken” but “lost”—can be read as a moment in which the boy exercises some small control over his situation. Control, but even more importantly, a state of mind that provides the reader with hope.
Not all of Gautier’s representations of loss are so dramatic. Indeed, most of the stories in The Loss of All Lost Things are both subtler and more familiar to us. In “What Matter’s Most,” Vivian finds herself at a mid-life crossroads. Recently divorced, working with limited success to maintain a close relationship with her daughter, Brooke, and desperate to discover whom she might be—taking tango lessons and trying to fall in love. The object of her affection is her young dance instructor, Tavares. Vivian knows she’s foolish, but Tavares pays her just enough attention to believe in his interest. And also just enough attention to make Vivian calculate the possibilities of her own attractiveness, all the way down to her fingers:
“Look at your fingers. See them not as though they are the fingers you have lived with all your life, but as if they do not belong to you.” (94)
The second person narration pulls the reader in close, makes us feel Vivian’s anxiety and, later, her embarrassment when we realize that she has overestimated herself. Part of this, we understand, is Vivian’s privilege. She’s attended private schools and lived comfortably in Philadelphia and now New York, although in Gautier’s hands, privilege is no protection against the march of time, no guarantee of wisdom, nothing absolutely save the accrual of loss.
What makes the stories in The Loss of All Lost Things—and, frankly, all of Gautier’s fiction—so remarkable is their unflinching gaze into our lives. Occasionally, there is beauty or small moments of hope and possibility for growth or change or the beginnings of happiness. Most often, however, the stories reflect our inadequacies. In this collection, the idea returned to most is our need to make loss feel significant and to keep it so. Bad things—often horrible things—will happen and no one can prevent that, but how might we take these losses and make them useful as at least private revelation? Many readers will understand that, just now, there may be no more important project.
Jeffrey Condran is the author of the novel, Prague Summer, winner of the 2015 Independent Publisher Book Award Silver Medal. He is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and co-founder/publisher of the independent literary press, Braddock Avenue Books.