The Things We Don't Do
“many of the stories have the feel of being a novel in gestation.”
Each of the stories in this collection contain what James Joyce referred to as an epiphany, a moment of revelation in which all that went before is cast into a new light. Lives, or at least the narrators’ perspectives—in the words of another Irish writer—are changed utterly.
When a man’s wife draws a line in the sand, literally, as she sunbathes on a beach and orders him not to cross it, he is thrown into confusion. Is it a game, a psychological challenge, a genuine defiant gesture, or has she simply lost it?
The line is a physical manifestation of the moment of epiphany when the story tilts on its axis and its characters and narrators are angled into new and unfamiliar territory.
Neuman breaks his stories, which vary in length from a page or two to extended narratives, into themed sections.
“Relatives and Strangers” draws on stories from his own family history, or at least that is how these narratives are presented. His mother and father, his grandfather and his own birth, or an alternative version of it, are explored.
Two characters, Juan and Jose, engage in psychoanalysis. But who is the patient and who is the analyst? Both believe that the other is the patient. One of them is clearly delusional, but the lines between sanity and madness are blurred.
Another section is titled “The Last Minute.” It covers the moment of death when characters commit suicide, are tortured before being killed, or are coming to terms with a fatal illness.
There isn’t much lightness in The Things We Don’t Do.
That is not to say that is an unpleasant read. It is invigorating, and many of the stories have the feel of a novel in gestation—a Borgesian outline of a theme and storyline that could be mined and explored and expanded.
Neuman messes with his characters’ minds, casting doubt on what they believe to be real and forcing them to shift into new perspectives. It is an unsettling journey for readers as the effect is to mess with their minds as well.
The penultimate section is literary in theme as writers and poets mull over and are challenged by what it means to write and the act of writing itself.
A poet is sent a translation of one of his own poems into a language he barely understands; he feels it has lost all poetic merit. He sends it to another poet and asks him to translate it back. He is horrified by the result.
He sends the translation of the translation off again to poets and academics in different countries and the poem is translated back and forward into his own language and others until finally it arrives back with him, word for word and comma for comma, in the way the way that he first wrote it.
Is this a complement to the artistic integrity of the original poem or an indictment of the randomness of poetry and the artistry of the poet?
Neuman’s collection ends with a series of one liners on what a short narrative should achieve, or aim to achieve:
“To tell a short story is to know how to keep a secret.”
“No gloss for good plots.”
“From the story with a twist to the story with a doubt.”
He delivers on all these.