What We Were Doing and Where We Were Going
Thu Jun 18 2009
Time Out Ratings :<strong>Rating: </strong>4/5
Damion Searls’s slender but powerful new book of stories continually asks the question: Is a writer someone who creates from within, or a person who merely organizes and arranges external ideas in a new way? Judging by the artistically inclined characters portrayed in Searls’s fiction, the answer seems to be more of the latter—perhaps not a surprising position given Searls’s day job as a translator of authors like Rainer Maria Rilke, Robert Walser and Marcel Proust. In fact, turn to the back of the book, and you’ll learn, if you haven’t figured it out already, that a handful of the stories collected herein refashion works by Andre Gide and Vladamir Nabokov, among others. In “The Cubicles” (a play on Hawthorne’s “The Custom-House”), Searls gets inside the head of a high-minded and neurotic corporate drone. “Dialogue Between the Two Chief World Systems,” which borrows ideas from Italian author Tommaso Landolfi, takes the form of a metafictional debate between a student named J. and a creative-writing professor.
For something purposefully cobbled together from free-floating ideas and older fictional experiments, What We Were Doing and Where We Were Going is a fresh, engrossing piece of writing. With one foot placed in tradition and another stepping toward new fictional territory, Searls knows exactly what he’s doing—and where he’s going.—Drew Toal