Outside of NewYork–Presbyterian Hospital, in white on red letters, a sign reads Amazing Things
Are Happening Here. Jacob Appel, a psychiatrist at Mount Sinai, uses
this to title his newest collection of eight short stories. The
tales vary in subject but concern the same broad desire: wishing
people were different than how they are.
In Canvassing, Josh, an awkward teenager, yearns for
Vanessa, a politically active girl who seems light-years beyond him in
sophistication, ambition, and intelligence. Because he believes she possesses these
qualities, he wants her not only to be with him, but also to manifest the
ideals he has fantasized for her. With time her flaws come into his consciousness,
materializing slowly like objects in fog. Appel uses time jumps to bookend this terrific story. The violence of its ending sticks in the mind.
In Embers, Zach, another lovesick teenage boy, pines for a different
Vanessa. One can imagine Appel excavating Canvassing and Embers from the same rock, but their skeletons take different shapes. Zach’s physician father pressures Zach to follow along the Hippocratic path.
Content to worship Vanessa from a distance, Zach walks downstairs one
day to find her in his living room, receiving blood treatment from his father.
Zach and Vanessa bond throughout the story as he learns about her illness.
The Vanessa in Embers has a flaw matching the narrator’s own: the need to see the best in people.
When she suggests that he follow his father’s wishes, he details his realization:
This was my first exposure to Vanessa’s willful blindness—her
infuriating ability to gloss over misfortune. This was also the first
time I had to confront the disturbing realization that she was anything
less than perfect. Of course, her rosy glasses wouldn’t have stopped me
from eloping with her, but I was suddenly aware that this
flesh-and-blood human being was more complex than the girl of my
Most of the tales use unrequited love as the ‘in’ to explore the conflict between what should be and what is, when side A wants side B to
change and cannot it accept when they crystallize instead.
Grappling, set in the 1920s—have dramatic triangles. The
narrator in that tale is Arthur Dobbins, a naturalist hired to lead
wildlife tours on Cormorant Island. He becomes enamored with a
recluse who lives there named Oriana, a woman
reminiscent of Poe’s loves:
She might have been thought merely pretty, in the ordinary way, if not
for a set of sharp black eyes that ignited her entire visage with a
tormented and passionate beauty.
But Oriana loves only one man: Jeb Moran, a crocodile wrestler who saved
her from an attack years ago. The story follows Dobbins’ efforts to win
her love. An alcoholic Jeb eventually reemerges from the figurative swamp to marry Oriana, though he feels no affection for her. Jeb’s paranoia about Dobbins and his wife grows until
a final confrontation.
Oriana sees Jeb as a knight; the memory of his bravery overwhelms her. But Dobbins too suffers from similar
delusions in his idealization of Oriana. Dobbins believes that if he could
just convince her or perform some specific act for her—a “saving”—then she
would see him as worthy. Appel shows reasonable,
intelligent characters making the same poor choices as everyone
Appel excels at story structure. In an interview with the
he laments that writers too often begin their tales without a
clear story in mind.
Modern writers want to break the rules before
they bother to learn them. Take classic story structure for example.
Begin with a normality, throw in a disturbance, add a twist, create
complications from said twist, end with a climax. You can even suggest all of the preceding structures within the opening sentence. In the title story, Appel begins this way: “We were short one
lunatic.” The narrator, a nurse at a VA
hospital, then describes the problem: a patient, Dunham, has gone missing. Rather than report the situation and slip into a
bureaucratic oubliette, the narrator decides to pretend the missing man is still around.
Examine the engine Appel creates: a dramatic situation, a character’s
choice, complications following from their choice. The machinery underneath is neither a
mystery nor a gift, but instead an aspect of pattern recognition found through reading, through engaging with storytelling. If the above feels restrictive, understand that no two writers would
create the same work from that opening.
And all of this can be accomplished sans deep analysis. Character may be an empty idea—a name, a proper noun canopied by other words as Gass’ conceived in his great essay The Concept of Character in Fiction, dead on the page as Socrates believed in the beautiful Phaedrus. And art may be a lie, not a ‘truth’ as many anti-sophists sagely intone. But the preceding matters little when one writes. Modern criticism has created its own genre, just as any sufficiently complex system will create a membrane around itself with which to accept input and output. Pragmatism is also a philosophy. Tether yourself, as Appel has clearly done, to the basics and then believe. There will still be time to play with language later.
That’s not to say Appel’s collection is straightforward or simplistic. Appel himself plays with the idea of ‘truth,’ or bits of the real appearing and disappearing. He accomplishes this trick by first presenting an honest (seeming) sketch of how people behave.
In this section of the title story,
a doctor arrives to check on the missing patient:
“I’m looking for Mr. Dunham,” he announced.
“Dunham … Dunham,” I repeated—as though I attached no particular
importance to the name. “Did you check his room?”
The kid looked at me like I had asked him to mine salt. “Not yet,” he
The scene, a microcosm of work drudgery, has
realism. Yet the tale it’s embedded within is a lie. The lie intersects with other lies, ones the narrator has told himself: that he is content with his job; that another nurse, Bernadette, might date him one day.
As he becomes disillusioned, he fixates on the tale of Dunham, on his fiction.
When his phantom is unexpectedly discharged, he feels “the pain of watching my patient’s
shadow pass one last time through those locked double-doors.”
us feel that too.