This collection is Julie Orringer’s first published book: like Joyce’s Dubliners, it is a knockout. Unlike Joyce’s stories, though, each one has a different setting. The pieces are bound not by place but by perspective, that of a young person who is faced with harsh, unacceptable realities and has to get through them somehow. How to Breathe Underwater contains repeated accounts of how the isolated, individual consciousness struggles to survive, or, in the author’s words, learns to breathe underwater.
On first reading, the stories can be hard to follow. I think this difficulty is part of their strategy. The author gives us only the bare minimum, and sometimes less than the minimum, of information that we need to grasp the basic features of a situation, because that is how people, especially children, often feel as they meet the circumstances that are hurtling toward them. They don’t know what’s happening and must exert enormous effort to make sense of a menacing situation. The stories, like life, come with no instruction book. You sink or swim on your own.
The first story, which takes place in New Orleans on Thanksgiving Day, is pervaded by a feeling, first, of incomprehension, then of fear, and ultimately of horror. Seen from the point of view of a young girl, it relates the events that occur at a Thanksgiving dinner her family has been invited to at the home of strangers. The child doesn’t know the host, or the other guests, a number of whom, like the child’s mother, are pale and wear woolen hats or wigs. You can tell from her descriptions that the house belongs to former hippies or New Age devotees. The dinner is vegetarian or vegan. After the meal, while the adults are occupied with spiritual practices (the woman of the house has recently died), the children are allowed to run wild in the back yard, which contains a large, complicated tree-house and a trampoline. Things get out of hand, go from bad to worse, and no one steps in.
Dire though things may seem, at times, in Orringer’s stories, as a rule they are not depressing, nor is their take on existence bitter or doom-ridden. In two of my favorites, The Isabel Fish and Notes to Sixth Grade Self, the protagonists, both young girls whom the author asks to brave many difficulties, do so with a clarity and purposefulness that give the reader courage. Why this is so, I’m not sure. Maybe it’s because in these stories we get to look hard things in the face in the company of someone—the author, through her characters—who is able to see such things and not run away, and the experience gives us strength. Perhaps it’s because we feel we can depend on the protagonists for the truth, since they are generally young, clear-eyed, and unbiased. With them we go through pain, learn something about life that is unexpected and hard to take, yet somehow, afterwards, we are better for it. The challenge is not so much disheartening as bracing.
Another reason the stories invigorate us is that the level of craftsmanship is so high. Orringer’s spare, elegant prose transmits a clean, concentrated energy. Not for nothing has she been the recipient of prizes and fellowships and rave reviews: Her skill is astonishing and her insight exceptional. The stories are not all equally outstanding, but they all reward reading and re-reading. Some of them I think—I hope— will not forget.~