What I Found Out About Her: Stories of Dreaming Americans by Peter LaSalle

what i found out about herStyle over substance…

🙂 🙂 🙂

The first and title story in this collection of eleven is a first-person account of a man remembering a night he spent with a young woman while on a visit to New York. In numbered paragraphs, he lists the things she told him about herself – her job, her family, her previous boyfriends – and he felt he had begun to get to know her. But he hints throughout about a future event that turned everything he thought he’d learned about her on its head, leaving him wondering how much we ever really know about anyone. It’s beautifully written in a kind of conversational style, with some really excellent descriptive writing that brought the hot New York night to life, and it conveys a feeling of the transience of life. It’s a story of the possibility of love, a love that in this case never blossomed when she didn’t answer or return his calls. But it’s also a story of loss – a feeling that is harder for him to get over, because he feels that somewhere amongst what he found about her he should have found out that she would do what she did – an event that is only hinted at but which becomes clear to the reader nevertheless. An impressive story, well told, despite the rather pointless gimmick of the numbered paragraphs.

There was that aroma of the city, a little bit asphalt and a little bit exhaust and a little bit just the strong, flat metallic something that is New York, what speaks the whole hugeness of it, the whole importance of it, the whole uncontrollable rush of it, like nowhere else in the country, definitely, possibly like no place else in the world.

Unfortunately, as the collection unfolds, it becomes clear that the majority of the stories repeat a similar theme – the main character, sometimes first person, sometimes third, remembers someone s/he once knew who is now dead and wonders if s/he ever really knew them at all. Frequently the ending is foreshadowed but not spelled out, which works quite well in individual stories, but becomes annoying when it happens again and again.

To change things up a bit, LaSalle uses a variety of stylistic techniques, which I mostly felt added nothing and sometimes actually irritated me intensely. For example, one story has the paragraphs preceded by hashtags – if there was a deep symbolism to that, I fear it passed me by. Another is told in the form of one long sentence. Now, when Michael Chabon gave us an 11-page sentence in the middle of Telegraph Avenue, I described it as a virtuoso performance from a master wordsmith. But Chabon’s sentence actually is a sentence – beautifully constructed and perfectly grammatical. LaSalle on the other hand frequently resorts to merely replacing full stops with commas. The effect is not the same.

The language is, on the whole, much more successful than the structure – there’s a jazzy, improv feel to much of it which often ties in well with the settings. Sometimes it becomes almost stream of consciousness, which works better in some stories than others. He uses slightly odd sentence constructions at times, I’m sure deliberately, but again mostly I couldn’t see that it did anything other than break the natural flow of the words.

…and I can admit that before going I pictured just about every cliché of our living in Paris, sometimes I saw myself riding a wobbly black-fendered bicycle down a Paris side street, the cobbles lumpily purple, with a freshly aromatic baguette balanced across the tastefully weathered wicker basket in front, sometimes I saw myself actually sitting with a book and looking suitably and even existentially bored at one of those little round tables with a faux-marble top and a frilly cast-iron stem in the clutter of a café terrasse

Peter LaSalle
Peter LaSalle

This is a collection where I felt the stories actually suffered from being together. Many of them would have stood out as strong entries in an anthology of different authors, but reading them all together made the similarities in style and substance too noticeable. When I reached the eighth story, I made a pact with myself that, if it involved a reminiscence about someone the narrator once knew who was now dead, written with some stylistic quirk, I would abandon the rest of the collection. It did, and I did. In fairness, I may go back to the remaining stories at some point, but to read them separately and far apart, rather than one after the other, and I’m sure they’ll work much better that way.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, University of Notre Dame Press.

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56 thoughts on “What I Found Out About Her: Stories of Dreaming Americans by Peter LaSalle

  1. We must always, always thank you for persuading us we really do not need to increase the height (real or virtual) of our TBRs. The author might disagree of course, and crossly pout in a corner thinking of the flatlined TBRs, safe for at least another day…………

    • It’s a shame in this instance because the stories are good, on the whole – some of them very good. But not as a collection. Though I know loads of people don’t read staright through collections of short stories anyway, but I do – I like to see if there are links, but these were similar rather than linked…

  2. That first story sounds rather similar to a recent experience of mine…
    I am a fan of odd sentence structure but it is so hard to get right. Not sure that I fancy this one much, to be honest – but don’t you thik that picture of LaSalle looks like P. VJ in 50 years time?! Teehee…

    • Oh, that doesn’t sound good – I’m sorry! I must admit I thought that one was really perceptive – it caught that feeling of kind of helplessness/guilt combination that sometimes people are left with…

      Haha! I see what you mean, but actually when I was posting it, it reminded me of a young man I knew hundreds of years ago – it looks just like I would expect him to look now… ah! Memories! 😉

  3. It is so difficult to master the odd sentence structure, or in some cases, lack of standard punctuation. (I’m thinking of unquoted dialogue, which makes me angry.) Too often I find it calls attention to itself and away from the prose, rendering it unsuccessful and irritating. Great dissection, as always!

    • Thanks! 😀 I’m such a traditionalist when it comes to punctuation- I always feel that ‘proper’ punctuation makes the words flow better, but I suspect that might be because of early indoctrination at school. But ooh, yes – I hate unquoted dialogue!

  4. FictionFan – That’s the thing about a collection of short stories. You want some sort of theme – something that holds the collection together – but at the same time, the stories have to be unique. Not an easy balance, and it sounds as though it wasn’t struck here. Well, at any rate my TBR is not threatened 😉

    • Yes, it’s a pity they were gathered together in this way, but I often find that with single-author short story collections. When they work, they’re great, but I think anthologies of different voices around a theme sometimes work better…

  5. “They” say that authors often revisit the same themes over and over again, but in doing so, they should try to attack them from different angles. But there should be some growth or movement over time. Doesn’t sound like you found that here. I’m glad, though, that this one won’t make it in my door.

    • Because I so recently read Hilary Mantel’s collection, I was very aware that she had a ‘theme’ running through all of her stories, and yet each story was unique. And the uniqueness was in the story, not the style. I often think that authors turn to stylistic quirks to cover up a lack of substance in the story. Mantel’s stories benefited from their proximity to each other, whereas these ones suffered from it…

  6. Thank goodness – one that isn’t for me. I’m much more of a “substance” reader, and life is too short to read the same story over and over.

  7. It is so disappointing at times to pick up something to read and discover that it was not what you wanted. Thanks for the review, though. I will refrain from looking for it.

  8. Goodness me. That poor chap was attempting to understand a woman. Never a good move. Never. Women aren’t mysterious, just confusing. That’s what the analysts say.

    Don’t you suppose the author chap looks like the snow queen?

  9. That’s a shame. Anthologies are a great way to find out about new writers, but I’d be sorely disappointed if I invested the time and money in a full collection only to find out that the writer was a one-trick pony.

    That opening story sounds like something I’d enjoy, though, especially since I particularly like tales set in New York. 🙂

    • I really enjoyed the first story and thought I was in for a treat. It is a shame, because if I’d come across almost any of these stories individually I’d have been impressed – it was just reading them altogether that made me start noticing the similarities. Oh well! He has a novel too, and I thought I might try that, till the blurb told me it’s written in the form of a single book-length sentence… *faints*

        • Haha! I found I was kinda doing that with Chabon’s 11-page sentence – by half way through I was desperate for a break, and trying to train myself to pause at commas and semi-colons!

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