Lyrical Flash: On Dana Diehl’s ‘Our Dreams Might Align’
Diehl’s collection gives unique ideas, vibrant images, and a lyrical style to short concentrated narratives.
Short Stories | 134 Pages | 5.2” x 8” | Reviewed: Electronic ARC
978–1999974107 | Revised and Expanded Edition | $9.99
Splice | Birmingham, England | BUY HERE
I was first introduced to Dana Diehl’s short fiction when I worked as an editorial intern for the North American Review. I copyedited and proofed Diehl’s piece, “Closer,” an evocative story about a teenager named Justine who is whisked away by her mother to Scotland after Justine’s father decides not to come back to the family following an expedition to study whales in Alaska. In Scotland, Justine witnesses her mother desperately grasping at the past, and it is then that Justine realizes her mother’s age for the first time. Despite its fairly brief length, everything is rendered in the utmost detail: the characters, the action of the narrative, the spooky and ancient landscape of the region. It is a story that is short, sharp, and potent, based in the real world as we know it but taking on an ethereal, wistful quality in its prose. “Closer” and the other pieces in Diehl’s short fiction collection, Our Dreams Might Align, occupy a space between reality and dreams, science and spirit. From stories of traditional realism to fabulism to speculative fiction, this collection constantly requires the reader to examine the lenses through which we process life, love, and loss.
“She dreams. The river splashes into her socks and makes whirlpools around her dress, which is strange, because she never wears dresses. Her husband is the size of a thumb, and he climbs between her bones, stands inside her ribcage, tickles her from the inside.”
(from “A Place without Floors”)
One of my favorite themes in this collection is science juxtaposed with spirituality, particularly because Diehl presents both methods as valuable but incomplete without the other. In many of the stories, a character is faced with a conflict and finds he cannot truly understand the world using just his faith or his reason but must acknowledge that life is too big to pin down. In the opening story, “We Know More,” a naturalist who perceives life and death through scientific angles is forced to accept her boyfriend’s sudden inoperable brain tumor. In “Stones,” a pharmacist’s lover sneakily tries to fix her life by hiding healing crystals around the house. In “Once He Was a Man,” a husband opts to download his consciousness, turning himself into a line of code, leaving behind his flesh-and-blood wife to wonder why he chose technology over the sensations of the natural world. It’s difficult to write about ideological choices without inadvertently coming off as high-and-mighty or standing on a soapbox, but Diehl has no ulterior agenda, and her examination of this false dichotomy is purely in service of the narratives. Regardless of the path the characters choose to attempt to comprehend the expansive mysteries of the universe, she treats each one with dignity and care.
“But I didn’t fear death. I’d always thought life was like a school field trip that you knew would last just a day, so you made the most of that day, and when it ended you couldn’t be bitter because you knew the deal.”
(from “Once He Was a Man”)
The tie that connects all the stories within the collection is not genre (for Diehl’s work plays with a variety of genres), but rather Diehl’s incomparable style and command of language. Whether Diehl is examining a realist rendition of two estranged sisters reuniting after one of them is released from prison in “Burn” or creating a fairytale in which insecure teenagers turn into packs of animals in “The Boy Who Turns into Toads,” she employs a lyricism that makes everything feel as if it were happening in a dream. The breadth of possibility in this collection is enormous, and the prose is absolutely exquisite, each and every sentence tingling with a fire that refuses to quit burning.
Part of what allows Diehl’s lyrical prose to sing the way it does is the shortness of the pieces, most of them falling within the length of flash fiction. It’s truly amazing the way that Diehl can take narratives of such enormous concepts and emotions, and extract only the core so the reader is exposed to a very concentrated narrative. Although Diehl is not opposed to slowing things down for the sake of a beautiful passage or illustrating the sensory experience of a particular environment, there is not an ounce of fluff in this collection, and not one single line feels extraneous.
“The boy and girl were new to commitment, only seven days married. They still marveled at the mountain-valley shapes their bodies made beneath the sheets. They were still growing accustomed to each other’s smells — she thought he smelled like upturned earth, he thought she smelled like freshly cooked pasta. They stood shoulder-to-shoulder at the window, peering out through the screen.”
While I enjoyed Diehl’s quirkier, more speculative stories, my favorite pieces in the collection were those that centered around family and relationships in a realist setting. Diehl is incredibly skilled at depicting the complex, often conflicting feelings we may have when we look at our personal lives and the people who populate them. One of my favorite pieces, “Swarm,” centers on a new marriage and a wife who feels pangs of regret at the new relationship. Throughout the piece, the wife (known as “the girl”) notices nests of caterpillars in the trees, and she wants nothing more than to destroy them, resisting only because her husband has asked her to let them alone. She begins to see these nests everywhere, and their presence represents the persistent temptation to destroy and start anew. In the closing piece, “Going Mean,” two baby Komodo dragons serve as a distraction so that a couple does not have to acknowledge their crumbling marriage. The couple moved to Germany to try to restart their lives together, but the attention is diverted to the dragons, and their aggression and hunger is juxtaposed with the couple’s own cruelties toward one another. I’ve always been drawn to stories of romantic relationships and the ups and downs that accompany them, but Diehl’s prowess at exploring the dynamics of family extends further than just marriages. In “Animal Skin,” a mother reflects on her growing daughter’s reluctance to display her body, despite there being a time where mother and daughter were once part of the same flesh. In “Swallowed,” two brothers get eaten by a whale, and the forced closeness reminds them of their family ties. No matter the relationship, Diehl has a precise hand when it comes to the delicate, nuanced aspects of human love.
“After dinner, he asked me, ‘Do you know why German words are so long? Lebensabschnittpartner, for example. It means, the person I am with today. In America we would simplify it and say ‘partner’ or ‘date.’ But here, we understand that nothing can be erased, so we let our words build.’”
(from “Going Mean”)
Along with her remarkable skill at defining character relationships and weaving gorgeous prose, Diehl employs some interesting structural choices and narrative techniques, as well. The collection features pieces in first, second, and third person, alongside a variety of tenses. All of the technical decisions seem to fit seamlessly, and it is evident Diehl has an intuitive sense of what goes where in a story. “Another Time,” a story told by the daughter of a man who breeds new species of snakes, plays with endings, particularly the accepted assumption that a story needs to have a “real” one. The daughter reveals a situation with a snake bite and then a variety of endings; some of them are mutually exclusive, while others overlap and extend far beyond the trauma into the family’s history. It’s a tricky form, and could easily come off as a gimmick, but Diehl’s talent and mastery make the choice seem like the only natural choice there is.
“When the cobra-rattlers and mamba-boas and king-hognoses molted their first skins, he strung the skins around my head like crowns. He draped them over my neck, tying neck to tail in an infinite cycle. I loved the snakeskins because they were ghosts of themselves. The snakeskins had smooth, pea-smooth eye sockets and ribbed bellies. They made rustling sounds like dry grass when you breathed into their mouths.”
(from “Another Time”)
Our Dreams Might Align is a quick read for those who prefer that fast-paced experience; the stories are no more than a few pages each and get straight to the point with no filler. But it’s a collection that, because of its beauty and intricacies, warrants slowness and a savoring of every bite. Diehl’s marvelous ability to blend unique ideas, vibrant images, and a lyrical style ensures that the collection is one that is cohesive and enjoyable to a wide range of palates.