(Baton Rouge, LA: Yellow Shoe Fiction, 2017)
Balancing wit and wisdom, Lee Upton’s most recent short story collection, Visitations, is provocative and entertaining as it follows an eclectic cast of narrators in their journeys to self-discovery. Whether through the many allusions to classical works, or through narrative details founded in language and character study, each piece explores a character whose identity is shaped externally rather than internally. With unique plays on voice and point of view, Upton’s stories seem to suggest that identity is forged through one’s interactions with others and through reading literature.
Several stories in the collection begin by immediately distancing the primary character from their identity. The title piece, “Visitation,” begins with the words “Tiffany’s mother,” defining the protagonist through her relationship to another character. Upton repeats this move in several other pieces, such as “A Meadow,” where the protagonist is referenced as “the wife” before her given name “Laura.” In “The Stone Wall” a couple is referred to by a collective “we” for the first half of the story. The phrase “one of us” is used to separate the “we” while avoiding individualizing the characters or separating them from the plural identity. Upton’s narration distances the protagonists from themselves, establishing their murky sense of identity within the first pages of each piece.
Similarly, characters use their relationships with others in order to better understand their own identity. In “Hello! I Am Saying Hello! Because That Is What I Do When I Say Hello!” the narrator develops through her connection to her family. At the beginning of the piece she defines herself as someone who “ruined lives” due to her role in her cousin William’s failing restaurant. When William frees her of this guilt, she appears aimless for part of the story; several years pass with no mention. The piece concludes when she latches on to her older relatives (who she claims “know me”) and says “goodbye” to the others in her life and – through that – the ways she identified herself through them. While she comes closer to her true identity over the course of the story, she never fully separates herself form her family.
“Gods and Goddesses in Art and Legend” follows this theme, primarily through Upton’s exploration of protagonist Alette’s short-lived romance with a man named Paul. Throughout their initial interaction Alette imagines what she must look like through his eyes, offering the reader a view of her physique for the first time. She describes Paul’s face as “a forgiving mirror,” going on to say, “you saw in his face what you wished you could feel.” Upton suggests others are a “mirror” through which we can see ourselves and our emotions. Identity, the story suggests, relies on others’ interpretation of oneself more than personal reflection.
The characters in Visitations are also frequently defined through their relationship with literature. The collection itself builds on literary history, with story titles such as “The Tell-All Heart” and “After The Turn of the Screw.” In “Night Walkers,” the narrator identifies herself through her ability to read, and projects the personalities of characters, such as Catherine from Wuthering Heights, onto herself and her ambitions. Upton deepens this correlation between literature and identity in “Gods and Goddesses in Art and Legend.” When protagonist Alette discovers she may have misinterpreted the use of imagery in A Room with a View, it suggests Alette’s reading reflects truths of her identity rather than Forster’s intentions. In this way Upton suggests that it is not only what we read that defines us, but that it’s how we read and interpret literature that simultaneously reveals and creates our identities.
In “Hello! I Am Saying Hello…,” the protagonist unwraps a mummy at an interactive art exhibit. She peels back the layers to reveal nothing beneath – just as she expected. The mummy, while a subtle image within the single story, is representative of a broader theme when placed in the context of the full collection. Much like art, identity is defined through others’ interpretations. Perhaps this is a way for the characters in Upton’s work to further distance the reader from their true personas. Or perhaps it is because the characters, unable to define the self, must search for meaning through the identities of those around them, fictional or otherwise.
| | |
Briana McDonald’s fiction has appeared in The Stonecoast Review, Glassworks Magazine, The Cardiff Review, Rozyln: Short Fiction by Women Writers, and Marathon Literary Review. She is an Associate Editor and a prose reader at The Literary Review.