By David Nilsen
There is a sickness at the heart of Ball, Tara Ison’s first short story collection, one she pokes at in each of the collection’s eleven tales until it is inflamed and in need of an ointment she doesn’t offer. You will find this to your liking or you won’t.
It’s difficult to describe what is at work in these stories. When I spoke to Tara earlier this year she told me about Ball‘s upcoming release and described it as being about emotional dysfunction, about individuals who are trying to live normal lives but are pushed by intensity of emotion into dark and disturbing behaviors. I pictured stories that were themselves dark and disturbing, but that’s not what’s happening in Ball, at least not for most of each story’s word count. Just as these characters start out as “normal” and then find themselves acting in ways they’d never have imagined, the stories themselves begin as simple, somewhat conventional set-ups about domestic conflict, love, loss, loneliness, etcetera, before taking sharp turns into deviance. Chaos theory is at work in these stories; small factors and inciting incidences do not provoke small evolutions and responses–they break things that prop up bigger things until entire lives topple down.
In the title story, a woman’s devotion to her dog limits and erodes her human relationships, and ultimately leads by terrible logic to a strange form of mercy. In Bakery Girl, a young girl’s sexual awakening does not follow the script she had imagined in her mind. In Wig, one of my favorite of the bunch, a woman’s married best friend is dying of cancer. They shop for wigs and talk about life. Honoring her friend’s life by fully living her own means some harsh, cruel, and cathartic choices while the ailing woman is still alive. In Fish, a young woman waits for her unconscious uncle to die in a St. Louis hospital. She is the only family member to show up, to wait, to handle paperwork. The relationship between uncle and niece is, of course, more complicated than we initially believe.
A few stories dabble in magical realism (or something like it), providing emotional consequences for the missteps of their characters that contort into keenly felt physical realities. Due to the way these stories are written with an aim to shock or jab the reader with the terrifying ways actions and choices compound for the worse, it is impossible to give specific examples. Suffice it to say you should think twice before double-crossing a lover in Ison’s fictional imagination.
The final two stories in Ball are the two that resonated with me the most, unexpected since they’re probably the most straightforward and subdued of the pack. Those are unlikely descriptors about the final story, Multiple Choice, because its format alone makes it an unusual animal. The reader is given multiple choice options for large swathes of the narrative, providing three completely different stories that riff on one basic theme–fallen, rehabilitated man with an ego the size of his fortune courts, flatters, and devours the woman who redeemed him. The wildly varied details of each story option only serve to iron down the central narrative that repeats itself over and over–woman as prop, as device, as disposable; man not content with being the protagonist of his own story, he must be the protagonist of a woman’s as well, at least for a while. It’s a clever and indicting send-up of romantic expectations. The story before it, Musical Chairs, deals with loneliness and longing, with the loss at the core of sacrificing passion for security. Its final lines are pitch perfect, illustrating Ison’s ability to cut between tissues and lay bare the pulsing heart of hurt underneath so many social and romantic conventions.
Ball is not for everyone. The stories are not pervasively twisted enough to appeal to readers searching for a more particular darkness, nor are they conventional and content enough to satisfy readers looking for more straightforward examinations of love, grief, pain, marriage, identity. The blending of these two tones, especially in the sharp-left-turn manner in which they are melded, will throw some readers off. It’s a hard collection to describe, let alone categorize. For those readers patient enough to allow the logic of the book to sink in, to ride the corners and accept the coincidences and the consequences thereof, the book carries ample rewards.
Ball is available now at GPL.