This Will Be Difficult to Explain: And Other Stories

  • Johanna Skibsrud
  • W. W. Norton & Co.
  • 176 pp.
  • April 24, 2012

Nine short stories, loosely connected, delve into the inner lives — and the inner disconnects — of ordinary people.

Reviewed by Camille Noe Pagán

Like the best short fiction, Johanna Skibsrud’s new collection, This Will Be Difficult to Explain, centers on the complex and layered interior lives of ordinary people. These are the kind of stories that make you take a long, hard look at the person standing next to you at the supermarket — or even sitting across from you at the dinner table — and wonder what unspoken oddities are floating around in his or her head.

This Will Be Difficult to Explain is not a page-turner, per se, yet Skibsrud skillfully weaves a sense of unease throughout each of the book’s nine stories — and occasionally that dread is so acute that it’s tempting to flip ahead to find out what horrible thing lurks on the next page. In the first, and perhaps one of the best, pieces in the book, “The Electric Man,” a young American woman is working at a French hotel when a particularly demanding guest asks if he can paint her portrait. She agrees, even though it’s evident something’s not right about him — but the truth about his oddness is even more devastating than the grisly tale he shares with her.

In a later story, “Cleats,” a middle-aged woman, Fay, becomes frantic when her new garden cleats — a birthday gift from her husband — leave her stuck in her lawn. As her college-aged daughter, Eva, is eager to point out, Fay’s being ridiculous; she can easily unlace the cleats and walk away in her bare feet. Soon after, Fay flees her suburban trappings and her marriage for Paris, where her friend Martha lives. When Eva (whose own histrionics have threatened to unmoor Fay) comes to visit, Fay suddenly connects the doom of her marriage with an incident that occurred decades before in which Fay, Martha and a few of their friends narrowly avoided disaster during a drive. As Martha recounts to Eva, “For your mother, it was like a sudden glimpse … of the … the old fashioned horror of things.” This line succinctly sums up Skibsrud’s entire book.

It’s impossible to read This Will Be Difficult to Explain without being acutely aware of how much the writer owes to Alice Munro: Skibsrud’s characters are similarly nuanced; her sentences winding yet concise as she alludes to the impossibility of language and what cannot be communicated, even under the best of circumstances. In another standout story, “French Lessons,” Martha — the same woman from “Cleats,” as Skibsrud loosely ties some, but not all, of her characters together — tends to the needs of the blind Madame Bernard. It is early in Martha’s Paris tenure — before “her real life began” — and her French is such that she thinks she gets the gist of conversations, yet often misses their true meanings. When Madame Bernard tells Martha a story about her son’s death, Martha does not realize the vast gap in their communication until Madame Bernard later points at a picture of her son, then mimics putting a loaded gun to her mouth and firing — a memory that will haunt Martha, and many readers, for years to come.

The characters in this slim collection find themselves dotted across the globe, in France; the U.S.’s East Coast; an unnamed Midwestern state where “it’s possible to find a section of the road to look out at and not see anything for miles,” as Daniel, the absentee father of a teen girl, describes in “The Limit.” No matter where they have landed, each narrator emits a dreadful loneliness; they are of the world, but not a part of it.

Skirsbud attempts to capture moments of internal disconnect — that instant when you look in the mirror and realize that you are you, and will never truly know anyone’s thoughts but your own — that can make a person wonder if she’s not a bit insane. It works best when Skirsbud keeps it simple, as with Daniel trying to coax his daughter by telling her she can’t really think about nothing, as she claims she is doing. Other times, as in “The Electric Man,” it can feel strained. The unnamed narrator explains how as a child, she tried to look at the smallest sections of landscape through her cupped hand and attempted to insert herself into them: “It was a tingling, rushing, electric sensation that I felt coursing through my body then, when I tried so hard to push myself into the fragments of the lawn, and experience the world in the whole and real way that another (I imagined) might.”

This Will Be Difficult to Explain will appeal to short story enthusiasts looking for new voices, and perhaps even an expansion of their worldview. Uplifting it’s not — but the quality of Skibsrud’s writing is undeniable, and it will be exciting to see where she takes her career.

Camille Noe Pagán is the author of The Art of Forgetting (Penguin, out in paperback May 29, 2012). She is based in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

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