This collection of short stories by Andrew Porter won the prestigious Flannery O'Connor Award for short fiction and was published by the University of Georgia Press in 2008. Sometimes it's hard for a university press book to find its audience, as was the case here. But it's our good luck that one reader this book did find is an editor at Vintage Books, which is giving "The Theory of Light and Matter" a much-deserved second chance.
So much for the story behind the book. The stories in the book are far more compelling. Each is narrated in clear, spare language by a character trying to come to terms with some kind of failure or loss -- a friend not rescued, a mother not understood, a child betrayed, a lover disappointed or left. For the most part, these narrators are reflecting on their stories from a distance, remembering in a way that adds a wistful note to whatever insight time might have imparted.
And that, really, is the most remarkable thing about Porter's work -- its tone. Whatever these people are telling us about, in their deceptively simple way, we're with them, willing them along, interested to hear and saddened to know. It takes a rare sort of artistry to establish such a bond, and to do it in such a seemingly artless way. So, when a foreign exchange student's crisis reveals the crux of a couple's marriage; when an overpowering sister admits her defeat; when a teenager's flirtation with an Amish girl misfires; when a boy tries to build a defense for the troubled brother he despises; whenever one of these characters tells us his story (or hers), we begin by being curious, become sympathetic, and end up truly moved.
Though there is not a bad story in the lot, one in particular stands out, the title story. Narrated by a very believable woman looking back at her college years, it recounts her one instance of diverting from a clearly and considered path in life; while courting the highly eligible and devoted boy who will become her husband, she forms a peculiar alliance with a physics teacher. And in recalling this not-quite-affair, the woman opens a window on a life she might have had and how it figured in the life she has now. That's quite an accomplishment -- framing both a whole life and its shadow in one brief tale -- and it's something that Porter does again and again. And again and again, he makes these stories seem like something we should know, and should want to know, and finally we should and we do.
Ellen Akins is a novelist in Cornucopia, Wis.