One nameless character—one of many in these miniature stories—marvels midway through Alex Epstein’s recent collection, Blue Has No South, over “how suddenly” a “narrow space revealed its high ceiling.” His wonderment is telling. Epstein’s collection is something of a spatial triumph—microscopic stories (some are only single sentences long) with manifold compartments and a capaciousness belied by their slight appearance.
These stories range widely, drawing from mythology (Sisyphus, Penelope, Theseus) and history (World War II) to the arts (Malevich and Shostakovich) and the quotidian (a “wayward text message”). Epstein, an Israeli novelist and short-story writer, remarked in a recent conversation with Words Without Borders that he delights in contrasts: contrasts between the real and unreal, between the ordinary and fantastical, earthly and celestial. That much is on display in the eclecticism of this volume. But the overriding preoccupation of the work seems, ultimately, to be formal. The title story—about a poet who is reminded, after dreaming about painting the room of a house, that “the Italian word for room is stanza”—suggests that these stories serve as structural units and may be stanza-like themselves. The poet of the collection’s title story “wondered if it wasn’t time he turned to writing prose.” With this book, Epstein may well be attempting just the opposite. Blue Has No South is, at least in part, an exercise in putting poetic tools to work in prose.
Translating from the Hebrew, Becka Mara McKay has captured the essential poetic qualities of these stories, in particular their subtle but insistent evocations of hidden depths and expanding spaces. Several of the stories open in medias res. One begins “Again I will tell this in order,” although the preceding story did not appear to be narrated at all similarly. Another entry opens “nor will this story have enough room to answer the question,” the conjunction (“nor”) hinting at a partner we never see. Yet a third starts “also in this story no snow will fall,” which sends dutiful readers after the first instance of snow failing to fall. These first lines sound responsive and correlative, even where there are no obvious antecedents. Within the bounds of these microscopic, paragraph-long vignettes are traces of other spaces, suggestions of a before and after and of unplumbed depths.
On occasion spare space can be found in different times, whether literally on the face of a watch (“Jung’s Nightmare of Watches”) or in different epochs entirely, as in “Time War.” “Time War” tells of a cataclysmic battle among three generations. Forebears, locked in battle with their great-grandchildren, ally themselves with the great grandchildren of their great-grandchildren (whose technology easily outstrips their own), all the while seeking refuge from enemy fire in the distant past (“we put our trust in the past . . . entire nursing homes and orphanages were moved to unsettled areas in the Americas of 1412”). Other tricks are more synthetic in nature. A story folds back on itself like when, halfway through “East German China,” the narrator discovers love letters written by his grandfather, from which, we are told, “I copied the opening sentence of this story.” In “Homer’s Childhood Games,” the story begins with a disavowal that instantly calls attention to its spareness (and perhaps to its insufficiency). It will not “have enough room to answer the question” it obliquely poses.
These rooms or stories invite questions about encompassing architecture. It is doubtlessly a challenge to collect all these varied and disparate chambers under a single roof, and Epstein does not necessarily try. This makes for an occasionally uneven, if mesmerizing, product. But, an immigrant himself (from the former Soviet Union), Epstein is skeptical of notions of homecoming and enclosures. He has likened feeling “at home” in Israel to the martial epics of Homer. “After the war, you discover you are still not home, you still have to find your way . . . to discover who you are and you still have to get home.” These stories, which Epstein has called the “fragments and shrapnel of everyday life,” are thus a testament of sorts to a furious and elliptical course homeward, if not exactly home.