Rubble in paradise
Alix Ohlin's new stories peer into a world of suburban decay.
Thu Jul 20 2006
Photograph: Joanne Chan
At 34, Alix Ohlin (pronounced “oh-lean”) could easily pass for a decade younger with her fresh face and bright-eyed demeanor. Sitting in Park Slope’s Tea Lounge, she nods in the direction of a tall, lanky, redheaded man. “Paul Bettany,” she whispers with excitement. Throughout the interview, she seems unfazed that others are stealing surreptitious glances at her as she speaks into the tape recorder. But her strikingly well-adjusted personality stands in stark contrast with her peculiar and almost creepy fiction. Her second book, Babylon and Other Stories, is a collection of oddities that feature a piano made of paper keys, a prosthetic leg that functions as something akin to an erotic toy and a ghostwriter who falls under the spell of a haunted hospital.
While radically varied in their subjects, Babylon’s 17 pieces share a seemingly singular obsession: the bizarre undercurrents of suburbia. “Babylon is a patchwork quilt of all the places I’ve been,” says Ohlin, who grew up in a quiet Montreal neighborhood and later attended Harvard and the University of Texas. She currently teaches in Easton, Pennsylvania, although she has yet to use that town as a setting. “I usually have to leave a place in order to write about it,” she says.
Ohlin’s novel The Missing Person, published last year and named a Booklist Top Ten First Novel of 2005, also focused on the peculiar nuances of suburban America. In that book, a New Yorker named Lynn must return home to small-town New Mexico to search for her missing brother, who has joined up with a cabal of ecoterrorists. Lynn initially resents the relocation, but she is gradually drawn to the group and its leader, a plumber with a penchant for Dumpster-diving.
Talking about an earlier incarnation of that book, Ohlin says, “At first I tried to write about artists and physicists, but it sucked. It just wasn’t natural to me.” So she turned to what she knew best. “I am of the suburbs, and I just embraced that part of where I’m from.”
With Babylon, Ohlin set out to conjure the delicate emotions and absurd situations of her novel in highly condensed ways. “My editor forced me to reexamine almost every single word and sentence,” she says. “Now my stories are getting even shorter. Not Lydia Davis short, but I am interested to see what I can do in ten pages, or five pages.”
She can do a lot. In “Wonders Never Cease,” Tom and Penny rent a quiet country house from a lonely landlady, only to be surprised one morning by a scruffy young man posing as a landscaper, determined to get into the shed. After a handful of rebuffs, Penny discovers his true identity and—against the landlady’s orders—unlocks the dark space that holds the house’s disturbing secret history. Another story involves a girl and her baby-sitter, who retrieve a prosthetic leg from a rocky lake. The appendage wields a strange power over the characters, and its sexually charged grip transforms them into bitter enemies.
Although Babylon’s story lines might seem absurd, a lot of them were inspired by personal experience—for example, Ohlin used to live behind a prosthetics manufacturer. “They threw the old limbs out in a Dumpster when they got new shipments,” she says, adding that her boyfriend at the time brought one home to her as a gift. Many attempts to recast the leg failed; she tried to turn it into a planter, but flowers wouldn’t grow in it because there was no drainage. “I really wanted it, but I wound up putting it back in the very same Dumpster.”
Ohlin’s baroque imagination helps Babylon steer clear of unhappy suburbanites and other Cheever clichs, but the stories stay grounded with their complex characters and sparkling moments of insight. She’s great at probing the moments that can change everything. In one story, an attack by a vicious dog pushes a microchip cleaner toward adultery.
Each of the stories depicts a different kind of Babylon, a place that was once ideal but is now showing signs of decay. Ohlin is interested in how her characters try to exist in these flawed and strange places. According to the author, it’s right there on the cover, which depicts a broken china plate that’s been pieced back together with a strip of yellowed tape. “I think it’s perfect,” she says. “The plate is very emblematic of the stories in the book—domestic, but cracked, and not very well repaired.”
Babylon ($22.95) comes out on Tuesday 25.