Reviewed by Tobias Carroll
Dzanc Books; 165 p.
2009 saw the release of Robert Lopez’s second novel, Kamby Bolongo Mean River, a meticulously crafted work that, over the course of its pages, brilliantly created contrasting senses of space. Its narrator begins the novel in a very particular kind of isolation, stylized and haunting; from there, the canvas of the novel expands via a series of memories. Suddenly, the room in which the narrator is confined gives way to a house, to landscapes and the sky above. And yet that isolation persisted: the experience of reading the novel mirrored the agoraphobia felt by its protagonist.
The stories found in Asunder, Lopez’s first collection, seem on the surface to dwell in a more expansive world. The characters here walk down sidewalks, take the train, go to parties, and have heated conversations about art. The collection’s first story, “Vaya Con Huevos,” opens with a pair of sentences that sets mood, tone, and aesthetic: “Two despicables in conversation. Tempers flare.” That structural choice, of leading with a short and eminently descriptive sentence, manifests itself throughout this collection. In “Maybe the Love of a One-Lunged Woman,” for instance: “Playing Solitaire, naked and drunk.” These are stories with openings that suggest mirth, luring in the reader only to subject them to something much more unsettling: relationships upended, perceptions failing, boundaries literal and metaphorical entirely shifted.
The sense of a stifling space that’s occurred in Lopez’s previous book does eventually manifest itself here as well. The final third or so of Asunder is comprised of “The Trees Underground,” described as “a novel in shorts.” The narrator here works at what appears to be an institute for the blind; that the word “blindsters” is used casually serves as one discordant note. The narrator observes the daily routines of those around him, retells their stories, and comes up with routines of his own. Some of the patients’ stories recall images and dialogue summoned up by the stories that preceded “The Trees Underground” — most memorably, the line “there’s nothing sexier than a pregnant woman.”
Lopez’s narrator here doesn’t offer much context to his location. He might be an employee of the institute — but if he is, why does he open one short by “wondering how much they’ll pay me when they do finally pay me”? In the end, an ambiguity takes hold; from the last seven words of the novella (and of the collection as a whole), a tension emerges large enough to include this entire work: “I’ll likely be home when I get home.” It begs the question: if you’re not, then where exactly are you? And from that disorientation, the precisely-crafted disorientation of Asunder is born.