According to author Nick Arvin, the first short story he wrote that appears in his recently published collection In the Electric Eden was "Commemorating," the tale of a man cursed with the gift of prescience, who receives clues before fateful events but can't always interpret them accurately enough to prevent inevitable disaster.
When the man's wife disappears from a Florida beach, after he has witnessed a bizarre foretelling event on the same spot, his life changes -- he commemorates his final vacation with his wife annually through the mail with a distant friend, inventing the life he might have lived with her over the ensuing years: the birth of a child, death of a child, twins.
If we can't prevent tragedy, the story seems to say, then why not conjure a life with no real risks except of the imagination?
Pretty heady stuff for a 25-year-old writer, which is about how old Arvin must have been when he penned the story, prior to attending the Iowa Writers Workshop, obtaining an MFA and earning a Michener Fellowship. His Iowa masters degree was Arvin's second -- the first coming from Stanford in engineering. His career as a writer followed a three-year stint in product development with the Ford Motor Company.
At 29, with a critically acclaimed short story collection under his belt, a novel currently being marketed to editors by his agent, and two flourishing careers, Nick Arvin appears destined for success. But worldly standards of success pale in comparison to Arvin's way with words -- elegant, subtle, compassionate and brave, his stories plumb familiar territory in extraordinary ways.
Take the title story, the tale of a young boy learning the hard way about the frailty of physical existence and the potential for harm. Arvin frames it with the real-life electrocution of Topsy the elephant, a bizarre electrical demonstration that took place at a Coney Island amusement park in 1903. We're offered a bit of instruction in early electrical experiments -- Topsy was "Westinghoused" with AC current -- and on its surface, the story is quaint and humorous.
But beneath the surface it smolders, just like poor old Topsy after the current, delivered through flat-plate electrodes, enters her body through the pads of her enormous feet. Unable to grasp the enormity of death, young Henry is faced with it repeatedly in a series of bizarre events that center on his reckless uncle and vulnerable aunt. The sorrow he inherits, we learn, lasts until the last days of his old age.
That's a lot to put in a short story, and Arvin does it masterfully, with clear, plain prose and carefully chosen images -- 100,000 sparkling electric light blubs, an umbrella stand made with an elephant's foot, a phonograph, a mutt dog named Marie, a smoldering cigarette.
Much has been made by critics of Arvin's alternate career as an engineer and the technological imagery that appears in his stories. But the author says he just wanted to spin a good tale, not consciously feature technology in his work.
"It gets sort of played up as a hook," he said in a telephone interview from his home in Denver. "It's the kind of thing you can read into it if you want to. I would hope that someone who had no interest at all in technology would find these stories applicable to their lives."
Technophobes like this reviewer can relax: Nick Arvin's stories would soar if they were about chicken feed. Arvin has an acute gift for making ordinary moments shimmer, much like his favorite short story writer Alice Munro, and technology just happens to be one familiar part of his well-developed consciousness.
Arvin will read from and sign In the Electric Eden next week in the Springs.
-- Kathryn Eastburn