The 11 stories in "The Peaceable Kingdom," are full of wisdom, insight and the kind of accuracy that gives your heart a little kick, so that you say, "Why, this is about me!" And you read more avidly, a little faster--you are even tempted to skip ahead--because you're sure this perspicacious writer will have an answer for you at the end of every story.
Alas, Prose is so wise that she knows there are no answers to be had. These stories tell us that nothing comes out the way we think it will, and very little of what we have experienced turns out to be the whole truth. After all, in a Peaceable Kingdom the lion lies down with the lamb only because she's already eaten her fill of someone else. Most of the stories end not in confusion, but with a sigh, and the disillusion that is the surprisingly substantial comfort of getting older.
Growing wiser by growing up is what happens to these young people. Children, teen-agers, young singles and young marrieds find themselves in situations that are beyond their experience and, predictably, they blame themselves for what happens, as if youth were a criminal condition.
"That year," the narrator of "Talking Dog" tells us, "it came as a great surprise how many sad things could happen at once." For these two sisters, coincidence carries a heavy burden of meaning: that a child can cause her father's death by wishing for it; that the appearance of a strange dog can bring back the dead; and that, when the dead finally do come back, the living are fully responsible.
The young woman in "Hansel and Gretel" drops out of college to marry her lab instructor, but once they're married he can no longer stand to touch her. They spend a perfectly awful weekend with the artiste mother of his old girlfriend, listening to an endless tape of Cosi Fan Tutte; it's not till 20 years later that the narrator begins to understand that "what would rescue her was time itself and above all its inexorability, the utter impossibility of anything ever staying the same." She's filled with sorrow for her younger self, but she knows that "to have even tried to tell her . . . would be like interrupting the opera to comfort or warn the singers: Don't worry, there is no journey, no one is going away, there is nothing to fear but your own true love, disguised as an Albanian."
Prose is also good at showing us how subtly things can go wrong. In "Rubber World," a passionate love affair between a library assistant and an artist quickly loses altitude when a ghost starts moving around downstairs: "It struck me that finding yourself in a haunted house with someone should unite you in a kind of fellowship, the camaraderie of the besieged, of spookiness and fear. But I didn't sense any of that. What I did feel was that Lewis had moved several steps away."
As we watch these disappointing lives unfold, the author points out the silliness that accompanies the process. In "Imaginary Problems," a lawyer, his wife and his children are in shock from the grief that adultery, miscarriage and death have wrapped around them. "Doug (my wife calls her therapist Doug) says our family needs a mourning ritual, a formal rite to bring us together over what has been lost and what's left. Doug's office is full of primitive masks." The family gropes for that ritual, and what they find is a dead hamster and an empty yogurt container; but the really silly thing is that these foolish symbols may do the trick, in a way a therapist could never have predicted.
The grim and the difficult are juxtaposed with the ridiculous. In "Amazing" we walk in on three teen-age girls watching Yasir Arafat on the evening news. "Neat head scarf," said one. "Too bad he looks like Ringo Starr." Yet Prose isn't making light of the serious world, or the bad things that happen to people; she's making them more bearable with her lightness, letting us laugh even as we moan at the pity of it all.
These are tales of lost innocence, of excited passions and high hopes not exactly dashed, but revealed for the plain, common, even tawdry things they are. The conventional subject matter of the stories is familiar, and we've seen the way people like these--the divorced, the bereaved, the troubled children of the wealthy--stumble through their damaged dreams. At times the characters teeter on the edge of shallowness; such casual language can make the reader doubt the possibility of depth. But Prose's felicitous, often startling choice of words and her light touch lift them out of the ordinary, and by story's end they redeem themselves with what they've learned.
The college student of "Cauliflower Heads" marries a radioactive waste consultant with a glum vision of the future, "a man to whom she looked like Tinker Bell"; after a three-week honeymoon in a Europe "crawling with adulterous couples," she sadly faces the fact that "their marriage would have to end and she would have to leave him to face the death of the planet without her."
In "The Shining Path," Linda, suffering from grief and a touch of sunstroke, thinks, "how funny that Greg should be right--death \o7 was \f7 like Fire Island." But she goes on to see that "this bright, endless road of light and indifferent faces wasn't death after all, but a vision of life . . . of what lay around and before her, of how little would be familiar to her and of all she had yet to go through."
We can sympathize. We, too, know that the path ahead is dauntingly long and complex, and we have a terrible fear that we're as inconsequential as Tinker Bell as we struggle along it. And maybe that's the wisdom in these stories: that this gloomy modern civilization and its discontents can be downright funny, even though it might take us 20 long and sorry years to begin to see the humor.