Rarified, but Not Stuffy

There’s something old-fashioned about Evgenia Citkowitz’s debut story collection, Ether—old-fashioned in the best way. That is, her stories are entertaining! They have plots! Jokes! Twist endings! Chance encounters! And in one instance—a ghost! Why so many exclamation points? I guess it’s been a long time since I’ve encountered a writer who has a taste for the spooky, rather than the fanciful.

Most of the stories in Ether are set in contemporary London, Los Angeles, and Manhattan. The characters are familiar—the disgruntled nanny, the fading star, the blocked writer—but Citkowitz gets under their skin so fast they never feel like types. (And it’s canny for a writer to evoke stereotypes when writing characters who live in cities where people are quick to pigeonhole one another.) For the most part, her characters occupy privileged spheres—either as members of an upper class or servants to it. To Citkowitz’s credit, she neither glamorizes the trappings of wealth, nor sentimentalizes the plight of the working class. Instead, she focuses on the way exposure to affluence—both directly and indirectly—colors the way her protagonists see the world.

An actress reflects on her sudden fame:

Sure, it had bought her some freedoms: access to better material, much better pay, free clothes and spa days and all the dinners she could eat, but it also meant she had lost the ability to feel her way forward guided by the promise of something, a fantasy of what life would be like if it were different.

An attorney, whose life has become constrained by familial duty:

As he walked toward the Village, the weather suddenly cleared; sunshine radiated through the cloud, illuminating the white of clapboard houses. A series of quick calculations told him the money and stress that went into each one…

A “clearance man”, whose job it is to “get rid of the stuff no one wanted, usually after death, divorce, or bankruptcy”:

His interest wasn’t only financial…with certain things, George felt something more: the residue of the previous owner, imprinted in the gnarled fabric of a child’s toy or the whorls of a tortoiseshell hair ornament…these quiet moments…were, for him, an occupational privilege.

Citkowitz’s characters are vulnerable and often live in the margins of the worlds they inhabit, seemingly bewildered by their circumstances. In the wake of a divorce, a woman observes, “As with so many adult situations, it was helpful to take an agnostic view.” Citkowitz takes this same pose in relation to her characters, never providing them with pat motives for their behavior, or simple solutions to their problems. Instead, she allows them to remain mysterious to themselves, to other characters, and even to the reader. It’s a technique that could fall flat if Citkowitz’s plots weren’t so finely tuned. She writes excellent endings, and can deliver a surprise twist without seeming corny or manipulative. She has a way of shifting tones, so that a story that begins as a light-hearted comedy of manners ends as something much darker and emotionally complicated.

In Happy Love, a mother must determine if her yoga teacher/pet sitter has replaced her child’s hamster with an imposter. When the putative pet dies, the narrator contemplates dying and old age, at first in an ironic way, and then suddenly in the most earnest way possible. The last few sentences of this story are particularly moving as the narrator recalls her most formative experience with death. A similar dynamic occurs in The Bachelor’s Table, an off-kilter O. Henry-esque tale, in which an attorney finds himself negotiating the terms of his personal life as he quibbles over the price of an antique table. Again, the ending is unexpectedly powerful, as the narrator grapples with the emotional bargaining occurring in his marriage. My favorite story, Baby Charmer, was probably the lightest, and at first seemed like a typical upstairs-downstairs fable, but as the story progressed, I was pleased to discover that I was dealing with a highly unreliable narrator. In the end, Baby Charmer turned out to be a kind of Nanny Diaries send-up, as well as a mystery story.

The collection takes its title, Ether, from the 117-page novella that ends the book. Although Ether was a powerful and often unsettling reading experience, it didn’t quite work as a novella. With five narrators and storylines unfolding on both coasts, it lacked the intense, slightly claustrophobic feeling I associate with the form. Its premise is promising, if slightly worn: A novelist escapes from post-9/11 New York to seek inspiration in Los Angeles. Once there, he falls in love with a starlet, whose complicated life provides plenty of fodder for his next book. But the narrative becomes overly fragmented as Citkowitz introduces more narrators and plot twists. By the end, I felt as if I had read a series of linked short stories, or perhaps the beginning of a much longer novel. Having said that, I loved a lot of the writing in Ether. It left me eager to see what Citkowitz will do in a longer form.

Citkowitz comes from a family of artists and writers, but I’m resisting the urge to make too much of it, since she is hesitant to do so in press interviews. Still, it’s interesting to note that her mother was Lady Caroline Blackwood, a writer whose distinguished fiction was often overshadowed by her high-profile marriages to the painter Lucian Freud, the composer Israel Citkowitz, and the poet Robert Lowell. It was, no doubt, a glamorous upbringing, and Citkowitz’s half-sister Ivana Lowell recently published a tell-all memoir about her childhood called, Why Not Say What Happened? Citkowitz, however, is uninterested in confession, and achieves a deep sense of intimacy without it. Most of the stories are narrated in the third-person, but she gets so close to her protagonists that I remember them as first-person accounts. She has a way of charting people’s moment-to-moment reactions that makes you feel as if you’re reading their thoughts. I was also impressed by the immediacy of Citkowitz’s descriptions, especially of urban landscapes. The passage below is taken from Ether, and describes its writer-protagonist’s first impressions of driving to his new home in LA:

The suburban outcrops had the look of an unsuccessful art gallery installation; an awkward imposition that in spite of itself had an integrity, an insistence that it be called Art. As he drove, he had a sense of space expanded—the infamous and sultry LA sprawl. He experienced it as a release, much as you would the loosening of tight seams. He understood what the settlers must have felt to go so far west you can’t go any farther.

One of my favorite pieces of writing advice is from the author Anne Enright, who wrote, “Description is hard. Remember that all description is an opinion about the world.” Citkowitz follows this advice on every page of her book as she describes the worlds her characters inhabit. She has a unique and contemporary point of view, and although I started this review by praising her old-fashioned desire to entertain, her prose is far from stuffy. You might think there is nothing left to say about driving in LA or walking along the sidewalks of New York, but Citkowitz has found new ways of seeing.

Read our review of Josh Weil’s award-winning debut collection, The New Valley.

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