That search for self-understanding takes two different forms in subsequent stories. The only piece set in the future, Elena, describes the mid-21st century when our Great Recession has collapsed into the “Great Slump.” Avoiding any sci-fi elements, Faulks depicts a world much like our own but shabbier, a Grover Norquist fantasy of collapsing public education and exorbitantly expensive health care. Elena is a lonely neuroscientist who discovers the molecular basis of human consciousness but enjoys no satisfaction from that breakthrough. “Knowing one was comprised of recycled matter only and that selfhood was a delusion did not take away the aching of the heart.” It’s a provocative idea, one that Richard Powers and Alex Shakar have explored brilliantly, but it feels a little cramped in this short, busy story.
Better is the deceptively tepid tale Jeanne, about an early 19th century nursemaid who “was said to be the most ignorant person in the Limousin village where she had lived most of her life.” Pious and incurious, Jeanne takes care of one family’s children for decades without incident, isolated by actual poverty and the poverty of her imagination. Although precise and sensitively written, the story seems queerly uneventful until Faulks ends with a flashback to a moment of spiritual crisis in Jeanne’s life. It’s startling and strange, the sort of unsettling insight one gets from the finest of Flannery O’Connor’s work.
The longest piece in this thoughtful collection comes last. Anya charts the international rise of a pretty folk singer who seeks out pain to make her sad lyrics more authentic. It’s impressively packed with the mechanics of songwriting and groovy details about touring, negotiating contracts, renting studios, hiring backup players, mixing tracks, even designing the record cover. In this pre-iTunes story, Faulks’ comments about the integrity of albums and the meaningful interplay of their carefully ordered songs sound as archaic as his earlier descriptions of Jeanne milking a cow. He’s also got the 1970s vibe just right, with a narrator named Jack who skirts awfully close to parody of the bell-bottom era: “She was my destiny,” he sighs, “and all I could do was ride it.” The story takes too long to develop sufficient surprise or conflict — all that free-love equanimity is bad for fiction — but its final pages offer a profound reflection on the mysterious parts we play in one another’s lives.
Ron Charles reviewed this book for The Washington Post.