Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Book Review: Orientation by Daniel Orozco

On May 2 at 7p.m., Daniel Orozco will read from his new collection of stories at our Pen World Voices event, together with Sudanese author Leila Aboulela and Swedish author Jonas Hassen Khemiri. Purchase your tickets for that event here. Here's Caitlin Hill with her review of Orientation.

Daniel Orozco’s Orientation and Other Stories
(Faber & Faber, 2011)
162 pages, paper

Reviewed by Caitlin Hill

Orozco’s debut collection unsettled me. I read the collection in one sitting and then sat still for several moments, trying to understand what I had just experienced. My first impulse was to decide whether I liked the collection, before I remembered that is never the point. In this case, however, I had no ready answer, and I became consumed by it. I’m still not sure if I “liked” Orientation, but I am sure I will read it again, I am certain I will recommend it, and I won’t soon forget its stories.

Orientation is in keeping with a long tradition of the American (post-indigenous) form of short-storytelling: subjects and situations we recognize, without a lot of drama or glamour. The settings are often quite simple—office spaces, supermarkets, apartments, loading docks, California—and, more often than not, what happens in the course of the story itself is unremarkable; that is, the plot is nothing extraordinary. The thoughts, experiences, and words that come from Orozco’s characters are so deeply rooted in verisimilitude that, at times, I realized I was pushing through a story very quickly, because I would move through the characters’ responses without second-guessing a thing.

I should clarify: this is not to indicate that Orozco’s stories or characters are merely predictable. On the contrary, his stories, and the people with which Orozco populates said stories, are inevitable. It is the goal of all writers, or should be. I knew what his characters would do or say almost innately. Even while reading something shocking, even while noticing that Orozco hadn’t done what a lesser writer would have done, even while the writer/editor/critic was in the back of my mind unraveling the craft, the reader in me was totally absorbed and comfortably settled in for the ride, assured that everything that was going to happen was perfectly set up and unavoidable. The shocking didn’t utterly shock. The surprising evoked a small euphoria of self-satisfaction that usually only creeps up when I guess the motive, but perhaps not the murderer, in a mystery.

We are repeatedly told to attempt to capture “the human condition” when we sit down to write—especially fiction, especially short stories. I’ve never hung off the side of a suspension bridge, as one of Orozco’s characters, Baby, does in The Bridge; I’ve never worked as any kind of painter, much less a high-risk one, helmeted and cocky. But I’ve been haunted. I’ve been nicknamed against my will. I’ve inflated the importance of lesser things in an attempt to relieve the pressure of the incomprehensible. Who hasn’t felt the precariousness of their perch? How could a man I can’t imagine relating to in any real sense be so clearly a mirror for me? We don’t even get any interiority from Baby, his story is told at a slight remove, but I know that guy.

In my personal favorite story (and I do maintain that I’m allowed to have a favorite story even while still trying to decide if I “like” the collection), Officers Weep, Orozco uses the structure and form of a police blotter to reveal the strange goings on during an officer duo’s shift:

300 Block, Galleon Court. Tall Ships Estates. Criminal trespass and public disturbance. One-armed magazine salesman kicking doors and threatening residents. Scuffle ensues. Officers sit on suspect, call for backup, ponder a cop koan: How do you cuff a one-armed man?

Orozco uses humor throughout, both to alleviate the tension and to lull the reader into a false sense of security, and this story highlights that duality best. Police officers have dangerous jobs; something must give. Yet, even while laughing, you can't actually relax because you don't know what will happen next. The thread of someone stealing a treasured chainsaw and wreaking havoc throughout the area provides a compelling through-line and an “in” for the reader, utilizing a subtle dramatic irony to hold us through the seemingly random events and help us feel like cops ourselves: recognize a pattern, follow the right track (if it were a game of Carmen Sandiego, we’d see a 10-ton weight drop out of the sky and feel the thrill of knowing we were close).

And Orozco brings the story a level further by choosing the predictable: the cops are falling for each other; the cops use humor to de-escalate tense situations; the cops humorously decide to avoid a certain repeated domestic disturbance; the cops revel in beating protestors; the cops are what we expect cop characters to be from all we’ve seen and heard of them. Yet, Orozco’s choices don’t feel cliché. It’s as if he doesn’t say to himself, “Okay, a male and female cop as partners. I can’t let them fall in love, because everyone makes them fall in love.” He knows that the manner in which he chose to write this piece makes it unique, so he’s permitted to indulge in other ways, with care. He writes their story, and if they begin to find one another attractive, hell, they’re only human.

And they are oh so human. All of his characters are, to the point of discomfort.

So, will you like this collection? I don’t know. In point of fact, I rather hope you don’t. How can you “like” it when someone writes down the thoughts you’re not so proud of, the wanton desires and judgments you pass, daily? How can you “like” your weaknesses picked apart on the page? How can you “like” the reminder of how unremarkable we are, how similar in our damage, how typical in our fallibility and fear?

If Orozco’s done his job as well as I believe he has, you will feel his stories slip between your ribs and ingest your gut whole, like a California rattlesnake. With no room for ego, you’ll feel devoid of pain, but certain that you have just experienced something horrifically true and devastatingly real. You’ve finally gone through your own orientation. Welcome to the team. “That’s my cubicle. I sit in there.” See you at lunch.

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