Stefanie Freele recently won the Glimmer Train Fiction Open. She is the Fiction Editor of the Los Angeles Review, and her first collection, Feeding Strays, was published by Lost Horse Press.
“With a poet's ear and a scientist's eye, Stefanie Freele recasts suburban ennui as existential terror, domestic drudgery as harrowing suspense. These stories are terrific — they are small in scope but their implications are enormous.”
“If you like your darkness with a splash of humor, Stefanie Freele’s Surrounded by Water is the book for you. This smart mix of long and short-short stories is wonderfully crafted and filled with an array of uniquely flawed characters. Freele is a great storyteller.”
I had such a good time reading Stefanie Freele’s Surrounded By Water. I knew I would. I’d been looking forward to it with giggly anticipation you might say. Freele is a writer who does the thing I like most in literature, and that is she writes stuff that only she could write. Reading her is a chance to look into a mind very different from your own. And those differences matter. It’s not like looking into a different mind and only seeing blank white walls or flashing lights or oh look aren’t these people awful and weird and aren’t you glad you don’t really know them? No, Freele is a writer who finds the right strange details and makes them matter in an entirely sympathetic and very human way.
I knew there would be lots to open in this new book. I was a kid creeping down the stairs on the it’s-mine-all-mine holiday morning before anyone else is up, squeak slap squeak slap on the stairs with my flip-flopping slippers. It turns out there are 41 stories and each of them is a remarkable package.
Many of the stories are very short, and that got me thinking about very short fiction, and that led me back to Sudden Fiction International (recommended below). I had forgotten that Charles Baxter wrote the Introduction. This book is where I first read Dino Buzzati (also recommended below) who Baxter also discusses recently in Ecotone 13. Sometimes the coincidences of life seem totally scripted like all the world’s a stage or something. Baxter starts that Ecotone essay talking about new writers, and at one point he says, “The result is Unrealism, our new mainstream mode.”
I think that is probably right. We are back to the fantastic as our major mode but in a way that reflects our times. Some of the best stuff is a kind of interior/exterior bleeding and blending, you turn your head inside out, and Stefanie Freele is very good at this. I’m looking to be surprised when I read stories like these. I want to see details, thoughts, and situations I would never have thought of myself. Then it’s just me and this strange new story cheek-to-cheek in the candlelight.
For example, I’m reading her story “A Bunch of Cash Landed My Way” and in the background I’m hearing Barenaked Ladies singing, “If I Had a Million Dollars.” It’s what I bring to the story. The song might be longer than the story. They probably have nothing to do with one another except in my head. If I had a million dollars I’d buy a big statue of a butt and put it in front of a bank, oh wait. . . .
Or consider the story called “Quack” where the narrator is to have dinner with Lydia but has neglected to invite her. It only gets better. Dinner happens. Lydia is both there and not there. Wonderful.
There is a strange and sinister boy in the complex story “While Surrounded by Water.” There is a town and a storm and a flood, and the people who do not flee are isolated both from the outside world and from one another. I thought of Ballard’s The Drowned World. Freele’s atmosphere and intentions are entirely different from that novel, but she succeeds in setting up a fully realized world with people like islands surrounded by water.
You will have your favorite stories in this book. Mine is probably “Us Hungarians.” Freele gives us deeply imagined and richly described details that are both very strange and very human at the same time. There is a woman with a hair disorder and a sloppy but remarkably tight family bond between another woman and her two brothers. There are dump sick wobbly seagulls. And cows. And Romance. And most of the people are Hungarians.
The twist, the thing you do not expect, is the genuine family bond between Allee and her brothers, the “us” part, or part of the “us” part because there is a very tall girl with a hair disorder (her bright red hair grows forty times faster than normal) and her weird father who are also Hungarians if less admirable ones.
Allee has run off to Massachusetts from Wisconsin (apparently the homeland of the Hungarians, who knew?) to go to school, but now she is visiting her brothers in California where they have rented a cottage on the grounds of a dump. The place is always wet and it smells. There are toxin dazed or crazed seagulls everywhere. Eagles are supposed to swoop down and eat them which can’t be good for the seagulls or the eagles.
When Allee arrives she notices her brother Steyr is bigger than ever as expected, since her other brother Kurz told her on the phone, “He’s turning into Elvis.” Don’t you love that? Isn’t it perfect?
The house is in a state you would expect a house inhabited by your older brothers to be in. Messy. The details are all great. Is Allee resentful? No. Is she disgusted? No. Does she try to clean the place up? Well, a little. Everything that happens in this story is surprising but just right.
And there is something about the landlord, Werner Waffin, the father of Haenel, the girl with the ever-growing red hair. “Rule #1,” Steyr tells Allee. “Never ever open the door to Werner Waffin unless we’re here.” It wouldn’t really be a spoiler to tell you why, but it will be more fun for you to find out for yourself. In the end, you will love these people. You will wish you were on such terms with your own relatives. You will all want to be Hungarians, too.