By Michelle Sacks
Northwestern University Press
Reviewed by Laura Nicoară
Michelle Sacks's Stone Baby is a collection of self-standing short stories, but the book constitutes an organic whole. This is achieved to some extent through the interrelatedness of the stories: the main character in one of them might be a side character in another, for instance, and many of the pieces in the collection share their settings, most prominently the author's native South Africa. However, the unity of the book is not so much content-based as it is thematic and philosophical.
Travel, migration, and dislocation play a predominant role in all the stories. The permeability of boundaries in the globe is taken as a given throughout. Even in the stories where the main characters stay in the same place, the environment, as seen through their eyes, is swarming with transitory movement. This, of course, reflects the all-too-familiar conditions of the contemporary world. But, thematically, the constant comings-and-goings have a different functional purpose—they impart a sense of general unease and discomfort, a feeling that the world is not a home, but a background against which displaced individuals wander in search of something they can barely articulate.
It is escape that motivates, explicitly or implicitly, the movements of the characters in all the stories. Sometimes the escape is literal. African war refugees flee their war-torn places of birth; poor Indian and Pakistani men chase the promise of well-paid jobs in Dubai; a former Nazi hides in South Africa. Most of the time, however, the outwards movement away from home represents only the externalization of an interior struggle for a different kind of fulfillment. In "Honor Life Long with Tears" men suffering from embarrassing sexual conditions leave for the perverts' paradise that is Berlin. In stories such as "Tell Me Something No One Else Knows" or "It's Not Really a Cult," Irish and French and British tourists go on journeys of realizing self-discovery narratives patched together from new-age slogans and Orientalizing stereotypes, in the process discovering a whole quasi-industry that has sprung up around "dumb-fuck foreigners with money and vacant souls, [who] will pay good money to find spiritual redemption in a faraway place with someone who has guru in her name."
But rarely is any resolution or fulfilment genuinely achieved. Dreams of achieving a better life away turn into literal slavery, imprisonment, or simply the same mundane aimlessness that chased the dreamer away in the first place. Multiple stories find and leave their main characters in a state of limbo, waiting for release, whether it is death or the opportunity to take revenge or the re-encounter with a loved one. And it is not just on a personal level that this happens. Entire communities are afflicted with it, as the narrator of "All Them Savages" notes: "Yes, they shout, our time has come. We are the future. This is where things change . . . Then just like that, the fire is gone and they're back to yes baas, no baas, anything you say baas." And how could anyone not be alienated? The fabric of the world seems to be constituted by unreality: games, performances, surfaces. "Look at this place," one character says of Dubai in "Rich People Dreams," "everything shining, everything new. But nothing is real. Nothing but us, and the blood we spill building them their fucking Disneyland of the desert." South African nouveau riches, also "shiny and new," attempt to escape the oppressor/oppressed dichotomy they grew up in through displaying their wealth Gatsby-like, in an intentionally outrage-inducing spectacle of wealth. Of a socially savvy character, it is noted that "she had a self-awareness to her, like she knew how to play every game there was."
Running, travelling, passing through—all this is reflected in Sacks's strong images. A great deal of the descriptions in the stories are of unfamiliar places seen through outsiders' eyes. About Indonesia, a middle-aged Irish man thinks: "Hell . . . this is surely what it's like in hell . . . Noise, garbage, collapse. A city for the end of the world. He hated the food, too spicy, too much heat, no sense of hygiene." In India we find "the stench and chaos of the city below, where the elephants and chaos and motorbikes shared the street with piles of garbage and too many broken souls to count . . . the cold showers and the squat toilets . . . the pace of service and the constant harassment of the locals." Cape Town "teemed with rotting flesh and the smell of something not right . . . piss in the doorways, sex, broken bottles of booze"; "a city . . . infested with the poor, the vicious, the couldn't-give-a-fuck." Although the content of the descriptions is different, to an extent they all seem interchangeable. This is not because they tend to focus on the same kinds of details—the noise, the food, the constant movement, the slightly stereotypical types to be found there—but because of the uniform tone of voice and style used throughout: enumerations peppered with an over-abundance of "ands" in what looks like a breathless rush to contain verbally the inexpressible chaos of a world that is perceived as an overwhelming and disorganised invasion of sensory events. At the same time, such descriptions tell us more about the gaze of the (mostly Western) spectators than about the places themselves. As Laura, a character from "Tell Me Something No One Else Knows," notes, "The ground was covered in mud and puddles . . . Beggars without limbs and eyes, bandaged and bloodied, held out their hands and pleaded for money or food . . . Isn't this amazing?"
Resolution may not be achieved at the level of individual stories, but something like it is imparted to the entire collection by the final two pieces, "Stone Baby" and "We Belong Nowhere but Ourselves." They are set apart from the others and marked as a unit not only by the fact that they both feature the eponymous stone baby, but also due to their new and, for the first time, optimistic approach to the idea of leaving home. The main characters of both stories leave Europe for Africa, in search of simple and tangible things—a father, a lover—and they achieve tranquil if unusual happiness in the process. Ultimately, the optimism of the finale lies not so much in the somewhat facile lesson that the stone baby (a symbol of love and permanence) provides, as in the almost poetic strength of the final story. The main character of this story flees to Africa to escape an environmental disaster that has all but obliterated Europe and the rest of the world, retracing the steps of the first humans who left Africa in the very beginning of human history. Everything is part of a cosmic cycle: "[t]he history of the world . . . Build, break, then build again. Because life is a circle, not a line." This seems a direct response to another line from an earlier story, the aptly named "Build, Break." There, history was also seen as cyclical, the repetition ad infinitum of a single destructive movement determined by human agents, the slot of those doing the destruction up for grabs for anyone strong enough to occupy it: "Isn't that what everyone else had done, the Dutch and the Portuguese and the English and the Afrikaners, the colonialists and the settlers and the racists who plundered and stole and served no one's interests but their own? The history of the world, rooted not in humanity but in greed. Why should it be any different for him?" In contrast, in "We Belong Nowhere but Ourselves," the cycle is indifferent to human beings, and for this very reason it is hope-filled: the general feeling of alienation and hopelessness is not an inherent feature of the world, it seems to say, but merely one of its stages.
One feature of Stone Baby that might become distracting is its constant sameness of tone throughout. The pacing, cadence, and even the verbal mannerisms of the third-person limited narrator sound the same, whether it tells of a hitman from South Africa, a middle-aged Irish father, or a 90-year-old Nazi. More jarringly, the same features are found in the first-personal stories. Everyone is highly articulate in almost the same way, whether they are a farm worker in South Africa with "the brainpower of a child," a 15-year old European refugee, or a 30-something former drug addict. Another potential weakness is that many of the Western characters suffer from poor individuation. They all seem like facets of a single collective character, the lost individual looking for redemption and meaning. Still, whether this reflects an insufficiently developed range, or a deliberate artistic choice that aims to enhance the unity of the book, is up to the reader to decide after in-depth reflection.
All in all, Stone Baby is well worth a read. Many individual stories are fine pieces in themselves. But, ultimately, each story truly shines best as part of the whole.