Together, Apart, Ben Hoffman’s debut chapbook, is recently out from independent publisher Origami Zoo Press. Hoffman’s manuscript won the press’s first-ever chapbook contest, judged by Matt Bell. As the title suggests, the stories in this collection transition rapidly between different modes of experience. The prose is by turns funny and sad. The narrators are cynical, then kind. The characters are constantly grappling with the difference between their desires and the realities they are presented with. It is in this impossible, transitional space that Hoffman’s stories flourish.
I have to admit, I studied with the author at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, so I knew some of these pieces from workshops and readings. But as I read this chapbook it was hard to believe there had ever been other versions of these stories, that they were once edited and whittled. Each one is a complete, lived-in world, which is impressive considering that some are just a few paragraphs long.
Hoffman’s stories are paradoxically, fittingly, both funny and sad—often within the same sentence. Even “One For The Road,” a strange piece of apocalyptic flash, contains both elements. This is a story told from the point-of-view of a child, addressed to his then-unborn brother. The narrator announces: “If they live, they will name you Earnest. If not, Charlie.” A news broadcast about the end of the world is punctuated by the moans of lovers in the room next door.
These stories are about families. (With the exception of flash “Next Time They Will Wow Them With The Shiny Stuff,” a glittering, humorous re-telling of the settlers’ discovery of America from the perspective of the Indians.) In “The Great Deschmutzing,” a woman addresses her dead father. She describes the mess he left behind and details the ways her family is now falling apart: her husband left; she does not want her youngest daughter to turn into her oldest; she is terrified that her oldest daughter is turning into her. It begins: “The first thing I want you to know is that none of us miss you.” While these stories are often moving, they combat easy sentimentality. In “Your Baby’s Mother,” a second-person flash story, a high school boy is assigned to raise a plastic-egg baby with a girl who has considerably more sexual experience than he does. In “You Can Get Wet In Cooperstown,” kids watch the tension rise between their parents while on family vacation.
Especially in the two longer stories, contentment is an illusory presence: something the characters desperately want, but are not quite sure how to achieve. Its absence takes up physical space in the story. In “Three And A Half Paths To Happiness,” the narrator’s son follows the instructional “paths,” of a bizarre manual, a birthday gift from his estranged alcoholic father. At the same time, the narrator dedicates herself to a series of self-made restrictions that she hopes will pave her own route to happiness. The narrator of “Deschmutzing” wants to be a good mother but, as she admits, she isn’t sure how. While on the phone with her husband, who has just left her, she looks at pictures of her complete, happy family: “Our smiles look lustrous, and I get close to one, like it is a mirror, and I try the same smile I have in the picture, try to see if my mouth can still remember the way. Please come back, I want to say. I will be someone different.” The two female narrators of “Deschmutzing” and “Happiness” are constantly displaced by the disconnect between desire and experience, always hoping it will be reversed.
These stories are rife with layers of loss: a father’s death, the end of a marriage, a lost egg baby, the end of the world. But their rarest achievement is in how they catalogue the palpable manifestations of loss and desire, the smaller shifts, those less easy to summarize. I’m sure we’ll continue to see great things from this author.
Together Apart, March 2014
Origami Zoo Press
Reviewed by Sadye Teiser