The worst part of Garnett Kilberg Cohen’s collection of linked stories, “How We Move the Air, ” doesn’t really have anything to do with the stories. It’s the cover. There’s a creepy purple drawing of a skeleton hugging a naked woman, and the font looks like it may have been cool in the early nineties among elementary-school teachers. When I read the obituary that starts off the book, dated 1985, I did a double take. Based on the cover, I thought the suicide that frames the story would have happened closer to 1885.
But these stories are more beautiful, more sophisticated and more contemporary than the glossy cover that, physically at least, holds them together. Their conceptual binding is far more impressive. Each of Cohen’s stories zooms in on a different person affected by the suicide of the central but missing protagonist, Jake Doyle. Cohen, who teaches at Columbia College Chicago, changes tack for each of the seven stories, choosing a new point of view, a new place in time, a new narrative mode. There is a letter to Jake, one side of a therapy session, the third-person narration of a seventh-grader’s mind. We never see or hear from Jake, but he’s there, trapped at the center of the web, and every story we read is part of the web’s thread, allowing us to extrapolate more about Jake and his death.
Despite the cover, Cohen’s characters occupy our messy, turn-of-the-twenty-first-century world. They email, have families that are casually nontraditional, and do prenatal yoga. But these details won’t make this book stale in fifteen years. “Coco wondered, fleetingly, if it was appropriate to talk of death in a prenatal yoga class. The thought led her to her father, which made her wonder if he would have died less violently if he had practiced yoga.” Rather, they will remind us that while the structure of our lives may be different than our ancestors, the content hasn’t changed. Whatever world Coco might live in, she’ll be plagued by thoughts of her father’s death.
The strange zig-zagging from one thought to another captures the way we think, but Cohen balances it with profound insights that only rarely occur in real life. “Danny thought about the dismissive way Jake had said that sound was all about the way you moved the air. That was actually all that life itself was about. Moving air, into your lungs and out again. It was as simple as that. Jake had decided to stop the air.” Cohen bypasses her characters’ lack of self-awareness and the fuzzy reality they live in becomes crystal-clear to us. Her eye for little moments and thoughts that feel so real, yet so unlike our own, connects us, in just 100 pages, with the complex network of individuals whose lives are profoundly—more profoundly than they imagined—changed by a suicide.
Cohen packs a lot of people and emotion into very few pages, but it never feels overly ambitious. “Coco thought of the children in her art class, snapping the air with their scissors; she thought of moving her breath through her body in yoga; she even thought of Roy soaring through the air in real or imagined astral flight.” There’s the same banality and sublimity of an orchestra of children’s scissors in “How We Move the Air”: Cohen moves the air by inspiring her readers to turn the pages. In her first story, Kay asks, “Is the cacophony of my written contemplation richer than words spun from my lips?” Cohen knows how rich, how loud, the written word can be. Her writing makes a subtle sound, but it’s one that doesn’t hit any wrong notes. (Ella Christoph)
“How We Move the Air”
By Garnett Kilberg Cohen
Mayapple Press, $16.95, 110 pages