Between Feeling and Calculating: Reckoning by A.S. Penne

Reckoning

Reckoning
BY A.S. Penne
(Turnstone Press, 2008)


From the Publisher:

“In Reckoning A.S. Penne scrutinizes the all too human desire to be understood by others before first understanding and knowing oneself.

‘Summer About to Happen’ reveals a teenager’s first foray into the realm of desire, which ends in shock as she realizes her fantasy love will never materialize. The father in ‘A Different Kind of Wanting’ struggles to come to terms with the death of a son he never learned to accept. ‘Heat’ explores the meaning of friendship when a woman takes stock of the expectations she has of her partner and of her friend. In ‘Threshold’ the superstitions of a confirmed bachelor convince him that a woman he works for is his intended soul-mate.

The characters in Reckoning are adrift, reluctant to fully engage in their lives. Eventually, through a tumult of conflicting emotions, they come to a reckoning point and are forced to accept culpability for refusing to meet life and love head-on.”

The emotional ground in A.S. Penne’s collection Reckoning is unstable: shifting sands, rugged terrain. Her characters search, again and again, for a firm foothold, a space to feel safe, a secure shelter in which to debate and assemble their difficult decisions. Penne does not grant them this refuge, is not interested in what it feels like to make it successfully to the other side of heartache. Instead, the seventeen stories in this well-balanced collection are about walking the rickety bridge forward from a difficult moment, about the dread and confusion, the indecision, the regret, the panic and anger in those careful steps. They are about the swirl and tumult of modern heartbreak.

The voices in Reckoning are varied — male, female, young, middle-aged, teenaged — yet the members of this chorus could be said to be searching for the words to the same song of longing, of wounded hearts. This doesn’t make Penne’s collection repetitive, for these stories and their relevant individuals are all persuasively unique, but it does give the reader a consistent emotional tone to settle into, thus creating a unified reading experience.

…the seventeen stories in this well-balanced collection are about walking the rickety bridge forward from a difficult moment, about the dread and confusion, the indecision, the regret, the panic and anger in those careful steps. They are about the swirl and tumult of modern heartbreak.

Take “Homing Instinct,” “The Possibility of Jack,” and “Threshold,” for example. Three stories of couplehood forged in a landscape of previously dashed hopes. On the surface, these are similar tales about the difficulties of relationships, about merging personalities and accommodating the ghosts of the past. Beyond that, these stories find their power in their differences from one another. “Homing Instinct,” about the dissolution of a Canadian couple who moves to California after the death of the woman’s sister, is perhaps the most experimental of the entire collection, using prose which ripples with sharp, arresting imagery. Here the sister recounts a dream, but Penne makes the transition to dream so quickly that for a moment the reader wonders whether this is really what happened:

One night, Sheila tugs her hand out of mine, pulls tubes of dull-coloured liquids from her body and pushes her feet over the side of the white bed, standing tentatively on the two twig-thin legs beneath her gown. She takes a step forward and I watch as her failing body turns light and feathery, rising up like gossamer in the wind and dancing, dancing on her toes. She dances over and around and through me, transparent except for her two dark eyes like beads of jet. When she dances near the window, she stops and looks outside. I try to persuade her back to bed then, but she only flashes those black eyes at me and climbs onto the windowsill, launching herself into space.

— p. 50

As the piece deepens, the imagery thickens. Yet the story of the couple’s rift remains familiar. Told in more conventional prose, “The Possibility of Jack” and “Threshold” both take the situation of a newly forming couple, but then unravel its complexities from two opposing sides. These explorations could feel like a simple echo, but Penne is able to push her characters as far as their different personalities are willing to go, a technique which unearths new perspectives to similar questions.

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