This past week I read Extinction Events, by author Liz Breazeale. This book won the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Fiction in 2018.
What is interesting about this short story collection, is that there is a distinctive theme that runs throughout. Many times a short story collection has a theme that is “pasted” on, but Breazeale’s work really is about extinction, in its various forms. Many of the eleven stories deal with what is disappearing, whether it be people, hope, faith, or even entire land masses.
I also found it interesting that Breazeale is also concerned about what is left behind. What is placed on the scales of justice as we lose the tangible. Is it of any value at all? Breazeale uses the word “detritus,” in almost every story in this collection, as if to say we are trading in items and emotions of value for the sloughed-off non-entities of broken families, a failing ecosystem, global warming. The stories are subtle, but represent a call to arms. We better start doing something now, or, like the characters that do not leave a volcanic island in time, merely accept our dystopian fates.
“Its most recognizable quality is that it is no longer here.”-Un-Discovered Islands
The collection starts strong with “Un-Discovered Islands,” about a scientist and her family befuddled by islands disappearing across the globe. Breazeale displays a strong sense of humor throughout this somewhat bleak and all too timely tale. How very human of us to want to explain the inexplicable, while also refusing to look inward at our own contributions to the problems. Whole islands and their populations are disappearing but the protagonist is concerned about the appearance of her house during a Skype television interview. (How accurate a picture of humanity!)
“The world is emptying and constricting all at once, like water through a closing fist,” Breazeale writes, in her wry and largely unemotional manner, one borne of understatement. Sometimes the narrative voice throughout these pieces reminds one of the scientist characters that often inhabit the work, digging for fossils and making notes of an extinct humanity.
A particularly timely line: “Two days later there is a meeting at my daughter’s school. The principal insists that it will be good to feel normal, as though we have not shifted to a new normal where terror is constant and now suddenly real because men feel it too.”
In the more abstract “Four Self-Portraits of the Mapmaker,” a parallelism is at work with the first story, as both mirror and reflect onto one another, as everything disappears, either literally or figuratively.
The story “Survival in the Plague Years,” hits almost too close to home, and provides prose-poem summaries of the various major epidemics and diseases that have tormented humanity over the years. I suppose an addendum can be added to this story concerning Covid-19.
“The Lemurians,” is a story of young love and sibling-love, that debates the use of innocence versus reality in art. Lemuria is itself, a “mythical lost continent of the Pacific.” (again pointing to the first story in the collection). Echoing the “un-discovered” islands, Breazeale writes, “maybe they [lemurians] were real, once. Maybe now they’re just not places you can actually go.”
Indeed, art and our very ideals are rarely constant, but ebb and flow. That too, makes us human (for better or worse).
“Collapsing, rupturing, snarled together, a knot of sand and wreckage and rage, an extinguishing I could feel in my gut. It was all cataclysm…”Passage in The Lemurians
In “Extinction Events Proposed by My Father,” the author tells the story of an aging paleontologist patriarch that time has passed by (a story told in a very different manner in Jen Julian’s “Bone Men.“)
“It does not matter how the dinosaurs are destroyed, only that they are, only that they perish, only that their existence never mattered” writes Breazeale.
In the story I can personally most relate to, “The Disaster Preparedness Guidebook,” a couple grows apart after a move across the country. The boyfriend character struggles with his identity absent a job, is often overly-anxious, and perseverates about events that may or may not ever come to pass. It’s a really funny story and says a lot about borrowed strength, how much we lean on others, and the ethics of such behavior.
Describing the relationship from the protagonist’s perspective, Breazeale writes, “Her life with him has been full of tiny lies, falsehoods that build under her skin like follicles, because when she admits that the world does not frighten her the way it does him, he is clouded by insecurity. She squeezes his hand. It’s going to be fine.”
In “How Cities are Lost,” women are “inflicted” with a wondering disease of insomnia, that perhaps nods to 100 Years of Solitude and its “quicksand of forgetfulness”)
In “Devil’s Tooth Museum,” again an aging patriarch is failing to properly deal with loss and the passage of time. This story also deals with the familiar theme of death and loss of a family member. “They sank into their grief together like it was a cavern to explore,” Breazeale writes in a lyrical and descriptive passage. In another strong passage Breazeale adds, “I thought, there should be a way to destroy these things, burn them off against the atmosphere.”
In “Ashcake,” there is now an aging matriarch too stubborn to leave a dangerous situation. In a shockingly timely section, Breazeale writes (from the matriarch’s perspective, “City counsel, my ass. Keeping all of us from earning a living over a little eruption.” If that doesn’t describe and encapsulate the current arguments being made by certain politicians/people about Covid-19, then I’m not sure what could.
In the final story, “Experiencers,” a woman realizes she may have imagined an “experience” to better bond with her emotionally withholding mother.
The collection is very interesting and Breazeale writes in a unique tone and voice. I highly recommend that you give Extinction Events a read.