Each story in Dana Diehl’s debut collection Our Dreams Might Align starts with a small bullet.
“It’s been two days since we were swallowed by the loneliest whale in the world,” begins one story.
“The woman with 43 children is dying,” starts another.
Words pile on in fragile rhythms. Sentences are constructed out of negative space. The unsaid lingers. Fragments dominate. Each story exists only for a short time, breaking off suddenly. An atmosphere of absence seeps into each one, the fear of being left behind.
Sometimes, this fear is explicit, like in “Astronauts,” a story about the wife of man living in a space shuttle. “Things they never tell you when your husband leaves the planet:” it begins, “It’ll happen faster in real-life than it does on TV.”
The protagonist’s husband boards his shuttle without hesitation or regret, but over time his absence begins to unsettle his wife’s world. “Three months will go by,” she says. “You will start to feel like your body is disappearing.”
The couple goes through the motions. They speak through video feed, but are never quite able to mimic their former life together. “Somehow the cabin surrounding him looks more real than he does,” notes the wife. “A wall of buttons, white panels. Scan it for signs of familiarity, a little bit of you.” Eventually, the illusion of their relationship fades. “Be afraid you’re a ghost,” the wife warns.
Some of the absences are created out of smaller distances, like the daughter who won’t let her mother see her naked in “Animal Skin.” “It’s unsettling to have a body that was once part of my body hidden from me,” the mother responds to her daughter, confused. It is not space but time which slowly pulls the daughter away from her—as the daughter matures the mother finds herself being needed less. This process of drifting is built in to every relationship. Even the mother with forty-three children ends alone. “A mother’s body is a house full of rooms that are always being left behind” observes the narrator when the mother finally dies.
It is not just the physical fear of being left behind, but the deeper fear that we are all constantly being abandoned, sometimes gradually and sometimes all at once, that pervades this collection. In one of the stand-out pieces “To Date a Time Traveler,” a woman struggles through the difficulties of a relationship with a man who has the ability to travel further back in time the longer he stays asleep. At first this excites her, but soon she discovers this is not something they can share. The boyfriend meets others in his dreams and develops feelings for them: “He still loves you, he reassures you. His dream life is separate from his awake life.” Soon, however, dream life eclipses real life. “You think you’ll follow him, but then you don’t,” says the protagonist, watching her boyfriend walk away in the snow.
In “To Date a Time Traveler,” the protagonist describes the boyfriend as a glacier with pockets of ancient gas trapped within that are slowly released as the ice melts. This depiction aptly portrays each of the characters in this collection, who all carry pockets of trapped insecurities and loneliness, often exhaled with a sigh at the end of the story.
This sense of things falling apart, of instability, and of abrupt endings is reinforced by the structure of the collection, which, like Amelia Gray’s excellent Gutshot, is made up mostly of short flash pieces. The condensed form accentuates the broad imagination on display and allows the reader only a brief glimpse into each little universe before it is taken away. The structure can also, however, be a hindrance; at times creating a uniform, monotonous texture. Likewise, there is a tendency for sentences to run too long. Some are overloaded with excessive clauses (“I believe in magic beans produced in factories, by chemists and cool-metal machines. I don’t believe in energies, in mystic forces that can’t be measured.”), while others become banal (“Around Ashton saying what’s accurate doesn’t seem as important as saying what feels right.”). Diehl does best when she couples her imaginative explorations with formal innovation, as in “Another Time,” where the story of a snake-breeding father breaks into hollow fragments of what-if.
None of this really matters when Our Dreams Might Align is firing on all cylinders. While many of the settings and situations are fantastical or over-the-top, the underlying preoccupation of Diehl’s debut collection is the complex and permanent loneliness that permeates everyday life. In the most affecting piece in the collection, “Once He Was a Man,” a wife struggles with her memories and impressions of her husband, who has uploaded his consciousness into a computer without warning. The husband’s body becomes a vegetable—the only physical reminder is a hard-drive labeled “HUSBAND BACK-UP.” The wife cycles through anger, confusion, and some sort of acceptance at being left behind. But the question lingers over the story—will she follow him into the singularity? The answer comes as a flurry of maybes. Her husband has run because he fears death, the ultimate absence, but perhaps absence is not meant to be feared after all. “I didn’t fear death,” says the wife. “I’d always thought life was like a school field trip that you knew would just last a day, and when it ended you couldn’t be bitter because you knew the deal.”
Publication Date: December 1, 2016
Publisher: Jellyfish Highway Press
Reviewed by Augusto Corvalan