Captives by Angela Meyer

Angela Meyer, Captives
Inkerman and Blunt, 2014
Softcover, 112 pages

“It was easy to imagine what could have happened. I was well practiced at it.” So speaks the narrator of “A bag of wool,” one of the many extraordinary characters in Angela Meyer’s flash collection, Captives. The narrator recounts his or her habit of going to the library to research old periodicals for the death announcements. Meyer’s deft language turns what could be merely a voyeuristic look at the past into a moment of reflection: “I sat there in the dusty library, the spectre of sudden death wrapping an icy hand around the tail of my spine. In the car on the winding road, I felt its grip again. I’ll admit I search for it, sometimes leaning back to let it take hold, so I might know how to live on.” Captives does not have a cohesive narrative thread, but the collection examines the meaning of loneliness as a common factor in modern society.

Meyer’s stories are inspired by Franz Kafka, and the cover and section breaks feature images adapted from his notebooks and papers. Like Kafka’s writings, Meyer’s subjects seem absurd at first glance, but quickly earn the reader’s sympathy. As Kafka famously wrote, “One advantage in keeping a diary is that you become aware with reassuring clarity of the changes which you constantly suffer.” Meyer’s stories similarly explore the passage of time with repetitions that build depth rather than annoy. One of the longer stories, “Nineteen,” features a main character who could be any college girl going to a party. Lisa automatically feels competition with one of her friends, and then pauses to reassess her behavior: “Lisa thought about the calories and was jealous of the fact that Serena didn’t seem to care or notice. Then Lisa thought about the thought and felt the smallness of her world like a bruising pressure on her skin.” Lisa’s self-reflexive contemplation serves to distance herself from Serena, but the story’s emotional journey is solely Lisa’s. After the party, she retreats to a diner to talk with another friend about the future: “they talked about what they really wanted, and that was more satisfying, even though Kirsten wanted a house and Lisa wanted something vague and sparkling.” “Nineteen”’s power stems from its awareness that many of us are as unsure about our present moment as we are about our future. Lisa’s optimism is grounded in her capacity to hope against reason that tomorrow will bring enlightenment.Captives_cover

Structurally, Captives is divided into a series of opposites (such as On/Off, Up/Down, and In/Out), except for the last section, titled “Until.” While some of the categories suggest a move toward a sense of community, the characters remain isolated in their own experiences. A theme of many stories is lust—a desire for what others have, not objects, but people. In “Portrait of a suicide,” the narrator is a photographer of suicidal subjects: “The photographs, when they come out, look just like Victorian-era death portraits, only my subjects are still alive.” In one, a potential suicide folds his hands across his chest while his mother touches his shoulder. The photographer not only memorializes the present moment, but also anticipates the son’s future death. The mother tries to keep her son by expressing her approval of his choice, even as the picture captures his movement away from her. Similarly, “Apocalypse” gives a portrait of an office worker who imagines end of the world at every turn.

Not all of Meyer’s stories address the future. In “My sweetheart saw a child’s face in the train window,” the narrator describes his or her lover’s travels through a small town. The prose recreates a Benjamin Button-like movement to the past: “Vintage cars were parked in the driveways of houses. Children carried tin lunch boxes printed with rockets.” The nostalgic recreation eventually leads them home: “By the time we got to my parents’ house we had shrunk down to half-size, and we walked hand in hand, smiling, with sugar floss for thoughts.” The story’s outer innocence hides a very-adult understanding of how dreams can be corrupted by time and experience.

Captives, then, imagines the end of time, not as a distant prospect, but as an inevitability that we carry with us in the present. Its mystery is the source of the hope, despair, frustration, and even acceptance that runs throughout the collection. Each of Meyer’s stories closes with a line or phrase that give Captives its emotional ferocity, and, like a fermata over a rest, encourage the reader to pause over revelations both large and small. The final story, “A momentary lapse of reason,” captures the still, slow movement of a woman reaching out her hand as a tree branch falls on a power line. Meyer allows the transcendence of the image to overcome the reader’s horror, much as she does in every story that precedes it.