An Astronaut’s Life
“They were eating dinner when the call came. It was the landline phone, which rarely rang, so they exchanged a look as the architect stood up to take it.”
This is a typical opening in An Astronaut’s Life, the debut story collection by Sonja Dechian. Its aim is to give us as little as possible while inciting plenty of questions. Who are they? Who’s calling? Why exchange that look? It implies future explosions. In this case, the call leads to an extramarital affair with a twist: it’s an old high school girlfriend who’s woken up believing she’s 17 again.
Premises such as these would be melodramatic if they weren’t carefully handled, but in this story, and others, Dechian distils soapy ideas until they go down like purified water.
Her territory is the emotional gulf that results from the logical error – as when a man wakes from a coma to find that his mother blames him for leaving her alone with his wife. These gulfs swill with seasick tension because it’s genuinely unclear where the characters will land. The odds are so evenly split between disaster and fortune that happy endings, here, are a thrill.
A young man tries to get over the death of his sister while kids at his school circulate gory images of her body online; elsewhere, there’s a superflu. The topics are nipped from the headlines, but Dechian is good at plumbing their symbolic depths. For the same reason, she’s able to wring tension from complete non-events, such as the text message that says, “I hope work is all right. XX”,which isn’t really about work at all.
It’s a solid collection – and so it may seem odd to wish it were a novel. But the best stories have a sustained voice, simple and nimble, which the reader senses may be Dechian’s.
The most satisfying is “Nights at the House”, a shaggy yet suspenseful novella. Here, a couple’s lives are disrupted when police start digging up their backyard for reasons unknown. It’s less clean than the shorter pieces, but somehow it electrocutes you in the middle of the book as if you’ve just stepped on a third rail.
Many of the stories in An Astronaut’s Life have fine, airy, unfinished endings. Dechian is good at averting your eyes. But when she relaxes this structure, the places she takes you turn out to be well worth the time. CR
Text, 224pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 8, 2015 as "Sonja Dechian, An Astronaut’s Life ". Subscribe here.