Review: There Will Be No More Good Nights Without Good Nights by Laura van den Berg (Bull City Press, 2017)
Reviewed by Rebecca Valley
I am a haphazard collector of fortunes. They live in my wallet and the corners of my coat pockets. Because I know that before long they’ll be lost to the washing machine or a damp grocery store aisle, I sometimes take their pictures. The other day I found one that had floated from a box in the closet and landed on the floor by my desk; it said “Within the month, as you tidy your room, you will find your lost item.”
In many ways, Lauren van den Berg’s chapbook There Will Be No More Good Nights Without Good Nights is about how we cope with our lost fortunes. In her stories, which rarely extend beyond three pages, a couple grapples with the loss of an exotic reptile store and its inhabitants to poor business management, and children yearn for cannibals and life on Mars. Parakeets ruin an already sullied marriage. A woman looks for the future in the markings of a dead turtle.
Van den Berg brings to her fiction a precise kind of absurdity – these are moments that we almost certainly will never find ourselves in, and yet we find ourselves in these characters, who dismantle Monopoly boards mid-game and leave windows open in the cold. These characters are hopeful, and they are desperately sad. They are, essentially, just trying their best. In “To the Good People of Mars,” two parents are distressed by their daughter’s obsession with space, and in that way, with escape:
“The lights were out in the basement. I could hear Amelia working with what sounded like cardboard and wood and maybe a small saw, could see the fleeting beam of her flashlight. Maybe we need to have an X-ray taken of her brain, my husband whispered. Before I could reply, Amelia held the flashlight to her face and I saw the silver gleam of her aluminum foil spacesuit and the black gloss of her helmet, foreign as a deep-sea creature. I tried hard to picture the child underneath – pale, frightened, desperate to leave. You don’t understand, I told her, your father and I are here to help.” (11)
In this story, as in all of van den Berg’s fiction, characters are at odds with themselves and with each other. They understand each other, and they don’t understand each other. They seek their own methods for coping – through space travel, court television, or an entirely new identity – and those methods contradict and confuse the people closest to them. In “Parakeets,” a woman leaves her husband for a dentist, but is unsatisfied. When she returns to her husband, she finds that he’s punished her by adopting two birds and doting on their every need while she watches, irritated and alone. The beauty of the story is in the split sympathy of the reader. We can be, at once, the husband with his parakeets, desperate for something to love, and the wife, who again and again seeks a solution to her unhappiness and continues to come up short. Their conflict is the crux of the story, and yet their struggles are nearly the same.
In her story-telling, van den Berg is playful, and she is sincere. Her characters may be cannibals and French-speaking birds, but they are authentic characters, honest and fully-realized. These stories are beautifully condensed, and carry entire worlds in their few pages. In this collection, Van den Berg let’s her imagination run, but tethers it with a precise and undiluted form. The combination is stunning – I will certainly come back for more.