“This Will Be Difficult to Explain” is a collection of loosely related short stories by Johanna Skibsrud. Her pitch-perfect writing style compensates for any confusion about the direction or relation of the stories, but what emerges by the end is a carefully crafted exploration of memory. The stories vacillate between young women out of their element in foreign locales and second languages and a rural America populated with pickup trucks and loaded guns. In one story, a youngster is taken on a dubious trip through the woods to shoot a neighbor’s escaped bull; in another, an ingenue misunderstands her elderly French companion’s tale of woe, laughing inappropriately at her son’s suicide. Memory, the common theme of Skibsrud’s stories, is nostalgic or painful—some events are too difficult to process faithfully. The titular story, for example, centers around a drunken man who horrifies his family with a rambling, untrustworthy episode from his childhood during the war.
Secondary characters become central from story to story, like “Cleats,” in which Fay, a wealthy suburbanite, is given a pair of gardening cleats as a gift. Remembrances of her teenage friendships and exploits, piling into a car and getting drunk off a single beer are juxtaposed with her, ridiculously, getting stuck in the mud in her cleats, unable to move. These minor difficulties—teetering in the mud, or a minor car accident years before—are equally frozen in time, conflated to defining moments based on the space they fill in memory. “Perhaps this was why it had taken six whole months to remember that it was that particular moment—the long extended moment leading up to the scream in which the scream had occurred—that she’d recalled and in some way experienced again, all those years later, when she wore the cleats that Carey had given her for her fifty-second birthday, and got stuck in her yard.”
Skibsrud’s reflection on time and space comes to its beautiful conclusion in the final story, “Fat Man and Little Boy,” in which two American expats visit Hiroshima. Drawn by urges unprocessed by themselves, they each react to the space-memory of the bombs of that city in their own way. Earth-shattering events from their own histories—miscarriages, cancer—mingle with the destruction of a city. We remember some events as moments, but what one character realizes is the slow build-up—not the flash of an atomic bomb that changes everything, but the planning, analyzing and loading of the plane. “A waiting to end, a waiting to resume. And it continued. In the museums and the history books, obscured. The ankles crossed. The carpeted floor. For lesser or greater degrees of renewal and of destruction.” Skibsrud captures a type of contemporary malaise, like a yearning for importance her characters desire to possess. “Waiting; and then again, waiting, for everything to settle, and resume itself. Object to object again in a blur, moment to unchecked moment, wing to unconsidered body. Again.” (Kelly Roark)
“This Will Be Difficult to Explain”
By Johanna Skibsrud
Penguin, 192 pages, $24