When someone asked Emmanuel Siéyès what he'd done during the Reign of Terror, he replied, "I survived."Though the characters in the stories of Frederick Busch's latest collection don't have to contend with quite the same adversities as Monsieur Siéyès, nevertheless they encounter revelations which are, in our modern context, just as terrifying.And more often than not, they survive them.
These revelations usually involve the acquisition of knowledge--the sort of knowledge we frequently already possess, but pretend that we don't: parents have lives entirely secret from their children; there is a point beyond which damaged love cannot be repaired; people use other people even when (and as) they love them.The families in these stories create stories of their own, stories about who and what they are as entities--stories which are often at odds with reality, but which help them to deal with the disappointments and tragedies of that reality.Clearly, the title's allusion to Hansel and Gretel invites reading these as stories of innocence lost; and most of the reviews of this oft-reviewed and much-praised collection (it was short listed for the 1995 Pen-Faulkner award) make much of this connection.But these are also stories of the terrifying darkness of adult responsibilities recognized and faced, though not always triumphantly.
In "Bread" two children try to put their parents' house together (or perhaps take it apart) after their parents' accidental death; one seeks refuge in sarcasm and denial, while the other makes bread which will never be eaten and thinks on various kinds of "debris": the "still-smoking rubble" of his two-year marriage, the pile of clothes which has "nothing to do with how my mother wore my father's flannel shorts on Sunday to cook in..."In the stylistically innovative "Bring Your Friends to the Zoo," a couple (these are nearly always duets of longing) awkwardly try to dismantle (or remember?) their affair, while being directed by the narrator about how to move, what to see: "Once through the gate, face right.The Deer House, the Camel House ... As you face your right you see a path before you.Take it."The zoo would seem at first neutral ground, but we discover there is no neutrality, no one is the innocent bystander, the one-day tourist.In "Is Anyone Left This Time of Year?" tourism of another kind is explored when a recently widowed man visits a town where there are no more tourists, and once there, shell-shocked with grief, he merely repeats everything said to him, thus becoming an echo of his previous visits; absolutely passive, he is the compleat tourist, merely and only "seeing" the sights.