What the World Will Look Like When The Water Leaves Us by Laura van den Berg – Book Review

I wanted to give Laura van den Berg’s collection the same diligence I have already given AS Byatt and am giving David Foster Wallace but I just don’t see a reason to go through each story. They are roughly the same story repeated throughout the book with a young female narrator, some inept/weak guys, searching, and unseen monsters.  Shampoo. Rinse. Repeat. You have a collection of short stories.

Is this overly harsh? Yes. But van den Berg’s collection is frustrating because a couple of stories do show promise (such as the title story, What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us and Inverness) and you want to like the other stories. van den Berg is certainly a writer adept at using words. Her descriptions are elegant but also repetitive. The first time you encounter her female lead the character is crisp but by the fourth time you encounter her, you already know what to expect from the story. There is a certain level of depth and connection that is simply missing. With the first story, Jean is a woman working as a Bigfoot impersonator and dealing with a dying friend and a family who wants her to give up the acting stuff and move home. There should be some pretty clear connections to be drawn between Bigfoot, her impersonating Bigfoot, people paying to have a run-in with a fake Bigfoot and the pretense her friend can no longer live under because of his impending demise. But they’re just not justified by the text. Next is a story of siblings where the daughter is trying to take care of the younger, mentally disturbed brother after their parents die in the Amazon looking for South America’s equivilant to Bigfoot. Again, there is thread after thread after thread that is begging to be ran together at some point but it never happens.

In the end, the collection feels like a big box of pastry puffs. They look like they should be substantial little bits of goodness, their presentation is bang on, they taste really good but after consuming the box you realize that they were just hollow shells crammed with sweet goodness and empty calories. The moments where van den Berg comes the closest to working are the moments when she either connects the monster more closely to the story or when the monster isn’t a focus at all. With “Inverness,” we follow a woman looking for rare flowers around Loch Ness as another group of scientiest search for the Loch Ness Monster. It works because the woman’s significant other never shows up just like how the monster never shows up. There is a futileness to each quest that is doubled over and balanced by eachother. It is equally paralleled by the story of one of the investigator’s, McKay, and his marriage that is more endured than enjoyed by his wife.

The second story that works well is the title story, What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leave Us. A daughter goes on a mission with her mother in search of some lemurs to prove a scientific theory correct. The mother is distant, distracted, inattentive and largely inaccessible. It’s clear that she is more concerned with herself (her studies and her lovers) than her daughter and, to the daughter’s credit, she recognizes this and largely makes peace with it while trying to find her own identity. While her sexuality grows with her being around a colleague of her mother’s (who also happens to believe her mother is wrong in her theory), the daughter increasingly becomes her own person and the story ends with her deciding to head back to NY to pursue her life as a professional swimmer while her mother treks off into the jungle in search of a validation for a theory we are led to believe will be entirely futile. While various monkeys/lemurs are talked about as having once been thought of as monsters, the whole mythical beast angle simply isn’t played up – and it’s a strong suit as the mythical beast isn’t some ape wandering around the forest but the mother’s obsessions that steal her attentions and energies. I think it also works because it creates a tension that is largely lacking in other stories. Where her other works feel malformed or half-formed, this feels like a total work. There is a reason for the events beyond it being five days in someone’s life with Bigfoot. With “What the World…” van den Berg isn’t obtuse with the conflict. A common problem throughout the collection is a vagueness in purpose and in meaning, they become frustrating reads because they continually refuse to offer a reason for having read them or for the significance of the events given to us. There is a profusion of images which the reader instinctively desires to find meaning with but not enough material within the stories to properly make any connections. “What the World…” sets up a dynamic between the mother and daughter and provides the material to support connections drawn within the text.

If van den Berg was more consistent in drawing connections between the use/need of the imaginary monsters and the stories told, or if there was greater variety in her characters or if there seemed a point beyond the stories other than “Five days in my boring life…”…well, if if if.  I wanted to like the stories.  There are aspects of van den Berg’s prose that I really enjoyed but this collection is just too flat and repetitive. Each of her stories has the pieces to be good, just like you can go out and accumulate the pieces to build a car engine. But it only matters if they are put together correctly so that the engine can run. van den Berg’s engines are nearly completed but she seems to be missed a key part here or there, just enough to keep the engines from firing up.

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