The Whole World at Once is Erin Pringle’s second collection of short stories (her first, The Floating Order, is reviewed here) and the wait has been well worth it. While The Floating Order was a finely tuned macabre look at an often incomprehensible adult world mostly through the skewed perspective of children, this new collection is a sustained meditation on loss and grief, again mainly from the viewpoint of children.
In ‘How the Sun Burns Among Hills of Rock and Pebble’, a young girl whose sister disappeared a year previously and whose drowned body turned up several months later struggles to deal with the finality of the loss, keeps expecting to see her turn up alive and well despite reality.
In ‘The Boy Who Walks’, a boy out for an early morning walk, followed in his mind by a ghost shadow of his diseased dog, nearly dies when he falls through a deep drift of snow into a drain. He survives, but with conflicted impressions of what it is to be alive and/or dead. When he finally opens up about it to his father, the father manages to allay the boy’s fears but is visited by the presentiment of the boy’s imminent death and begins his journey into grief.
In ‘When the Frost Comes’, a girl discovers her mother dead on the kitchen floor of their isolated home and rationalises her alive while waiting for help to arrive.
‘This Bomb My Heart’ deals with the death of a girl’s family through heart attack and cancer. ‘The Fish’ features a couple coming to terms (or not) with a miscarriage while organising for the woman’s elderly father to move into a nursing home. In ‘The Missing Time’, a couple prays they can hold onto a pregnancy after an earlier miscarriage while dealing with the tragic death of the husband’s handicapped brother.
In several stories, parents, worn down by a life that has somehow failed to deliver on the promise of their earlier years, are remarkably frank with their children about death, which struck me as a strange yet rewarding mix of callous disregard for their kids’ emotional health and refreshing honesty.
All this may seem like heavy going, but the language used is so delicately handled that the stories are a joy to read. The loss explored in these stories also extends to the slow decay of towns and communities in the rural Midwest of the United States:
The owner’s cleaning the grill, which is thick with grease after a busy morning. He’s shaking his head. His best waitress took off fair week, the busiest week of the year, for her vacation, and he can’t blame her because of the circumstances, but he also can’t afford any of the waitresses and the few waitresses who apply are teenagers who never have time to work or women knocked up or knocked out, coming to work with bruises thick as their mumbled sorries, but mostly the problem is none of them give a hell, and probably he can’t expect them to, after all, here they are serving burgers, chicken fried steak, refilling coffee for the elementary schoolteachers who had promised they could be anything they wanted. (from ‘How the Sun Burns Among Hills of Rock and Pebble’)
There is also a leavening of dark humour in several of the stories. After the funeral of the girl’s mother in ‘This Bomb My Heart’, the girl and her adult brother serve up some food to the grandparents back at the house:
Their grandparents sat on the couch, balancing paper plates on their knees.
Don’t you have TV trays? their grandfather said.
We could eat on the table outside, I guess, her brother said.
Too cold, their grandmother said and raised a chicken leg to her lips and pulled at it with her teeth.
What you need to do, their grandfather said, is sell this place, move some place nice.
Lots of young people in Florida, their grandmother said.
Beautiful place, their grandfather said. Some ugly parts about it, but ugly’s everywhere. Can’t escape that.
The girl tried to catch her brother’s eye. All she knew about Florida were the souvenirs decorating their grandparents’ house: the tiny crab claws and seashells and bamboo wind chimes and the plastic coasters encasing sand dollars.
This is good potato salad, their grandmother said. Do you know who made it?
Mom, the girl said.
Just the right amount of crunch, their grandmother said.
She used to make it all the time, the girl said. You’ve had it before.
Their grandmother nodded. I’ll have to get the recipe from you before we leave.
The key to the collection, in my view, is delivered in ‘The Missing Time’, when the husband contemplates the couple’s earlier miscarriage:
It hurts him to think of it, and so he thinks about it harder in order to deepen the hurt. How much of grief is punishing oneself into grieving. As though one can never grieve equal to life. And one must grieve for that, too.
This is an astonishing collection, beautifully written, heartrending, and deeply affecting.