The Archivists: Stories
Taken together, the characters in the 12 stories in The Archivists are coping with imminent death, recent deaths, long-ago deaths, serious accidents, a stalker, decreasing mobility, unemployment, and romantic breakups. They feel lost and fear looming losses. A sense of gloom hangs over many of the narratives—even actual gloom, such as the cloudy sky like “a world stuffed with cotton batting” that mars a difficult mountain hike in Germany.
Nevertheless, more often than might be expected, these beautifully crafted pieces end with a spark of hope. In “Relativity,” the opening story, Robert, a social worker, tells one of his clients that “I should be leaving now.”
“Me too, Robert,” replies Rozsa Fischer, a 99-year-old Holocaust survivor. Then she gives a “slow, nearly silent laugh. But she was still here.”
Many of the tales are told in third person from the point of view of a college-educated, professional woman in her thirties with tight control over her emotions. In “Providence,” Talia, a grant writer in Rhode Island, is trying to find the Good Samaritans who helped her—she thinks—when she suffered a seizure while jogging. By contrast, Kristin, who works in her town clerk’s office in New Mexico in “Seeing,” realizes that the creepy truck driver in a blue bandana who’s following her on her evening stroll is becoming increasingly aggressive, even as the streets around her grow dangerously emptier.
Sometimes the narrators are romantically involved with men they’re sure are wrong for them: too young, too cold, or neurodiverse. Occasionally, those “wrong” men turn out to be, in fact, right.
Award-winning author Daphne Kalotay can be a master of subtlety and slow surprise. In the stunning “Heart-Scalded,” she gradually builds the backstory with a casual reference here and there that could mean nothing special. Sure, Viv “had even considered false lashes” as she’s dressing for a Halloween costume party, “since they seemed to be in fashion even for women in their thirties like her.” Viv’s ex-boyfriend is at the party with his new fiancée, so it’s not surprising that a friend would ask, “How you holding up?”
Until, just as casually, Kalotay notes that Viv is having trouble maneuvering her plate of food “because she was trying to keep her arms folded, to hide the bruises where the nurse struggled to insert the tube into her veins.” The all-but-useless chemotherapy tube, that is.
Of course, as with any collection, there are some weaker selections. “Awake” is a kind-of Rip Van Winkle tale that relies too much on suspension of disbelief, and the short “Egg in Aspic” doesn’t seem to go anywhere.
But those are the rare stumbles in this impressive book.