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Short stories have been one of my great loves for years. It wasn't always so. When I first subscribed to The New Yorker in the 1980s, I didn't understand a great deal of the stories the great magazine published in the last years of Mr. Shawn's tenure. But even if I cannot say I enjoyed reading them all, I did know that I was being introduced to a world far beyond the confines of a small city in the Northwest that thought it was a small town 20 years in the past -- the one in which I grew up -- and an even smaller village in which I was working.

In the '90s, things started to click with more frequency. This is a great benefit of reading, and reading some more, then reading some more. It just starts to click. Schema is one of our brain's great gifts. The more we read, the more we know -- without even realizing we know more -- and the more we know, the more our world starts to make a little more sense. Not that the world and people will always make sense, but the potential is there that they may. Or that we may at least realize there is at least one more perspective beyond our own, and knowing that may help us help make sense of the world and other people.

T.C. Boyle is one of the writers who has done much to make my world a bigger place, even when he is writing about smaller, confined places and ideas. His story, The Relive Box, in this year's March 17 issue is a superb example. (The story is available online to magazine subscribers.)

A divorced father with a teenage daughter is trapped in his past. He has shelled out a great deal of money for the game console that allows users to go back into their past and relive any moment or any extended period of time. The past plays out in real time as the user watches it, over and over again, repeat, fast-forward, again and again and again.

Boyle touches on what this could mean to society (probably not much good, as also was the point of a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode where everyone except Wesley Crusher and Data was playing a game that enveloped them). The narrator in Boyle's story, also named Wes, knows he is at an empty point in his life with work and without his wife, and that he is letting his daughter down. But the console calls to him. He wants to go back over everything to find out when and where things went wrong, starting with the big love of his life before his wife.

One of the things that stands out about many of Boyle's short stories is that his narrators, unlike so many others, is completely aware of what he is doing. He knows he is hurting his daughter. He knows he isn't giving her the kind of life he wants her to have. He knows his heart is in the right place but that he just hasn't got the fortitude to strive harder -- his heart isn't in it.

And now his daughter wants to relive her life. She wants to be nine years old again, when her parents were together and they were a family. She isn't out making new memories. She says she doesn't have friends.

Boyle winds up the story with a brilliant piece of dialogue that lets the reader determine whether a turning point has been reached or whether the two characters are doomed to never go beyond reliving the past. In an online column about the story, Boyle is addressing another point of the story but shows he knows that it is up to us now that he is done with the writing: "we must let the reader decide such things," he notes.

Gaining other perspectives isn't the only benefit I've gained from reading and then reading more. It's the connections that spring up between different works that helps show the possibilities of other perspectives existing and that makes the ideas about perspectives stronger that can make reading a thrilling experience. This story reminds me not so much of other alternative presents or futuristic stories of Boyle's as much as it reminds me of his other stories that touch on parenting and possible tragedies. In The Lie from 2008, a man doesn't want to go to work and lies that his baby is dying. In the brilliant Chicxulub from 2004, devoted parents get the worst call in the middle of the night that a parent can get.

The way Boyle's characters want so desperately to live in the past even brings to mind the last sentence in The Great Gatsby:  “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” The problem Boyle's characters are facing is that the past calls us whether we want to go there or not. Fitzgerald knew that too.

The Relive Box also brings to mind at least two stories from George Saunders's Tenth of December, one of my best beloved collections in recent years. The tone in his alternate present stories My Chivalric Fiasco and The Semplica Girl Diaries, in which girls are more explicitly bought as commodities in a society that has confused being able to get stuff and get people only slightly more than those of us who sometimes suffer from #FirstWorldProblems, closely conveys the outlook in Boyle's work. We may be able to make more, do more and have nifty stuff, but what good is it doing us? How are we better people? Do we love better or more? Do we care at all about others?

And those are questions worth pondering. This isn't a call to go back to living as one with the land. As if I would give up my laptop or satellite TV. But how am I using what we have now to see more clearly and care more deeply? What difference can I make today for someone else? For my community? What would happen if I gave in after a down day and just pulled the covers over my head, disappearing into Candy Crush and TV binge-watching? (Hint: If I thought I felt bad just because of what someone else thoughtlessly did, how bad would I feel to turn into a complete slug? No thanks.)

By helping my thoughts meander to get to that point, Boyle has given me a gift. No wonder I love short stories.

Readers & Book Lovers Series Schedule:






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SAT (fourth each month) 11:00 AM Windy City Bookworm Chitown Kev
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