Orientation and Other Stories
By Daniel Orozco
Faber & Faber
Daniel Orozco's debut takes its name from the first short story he published—which made Best American Short Stories 1995, just as the now 53-year-old Orozco was finishing up his MFA—and collects work published up through Bush's second term. In other words, he'd finally written enough fiction to fill a book, nine stories over 160-odd pages. Under such circumstances, pattern recognition is often an imperative for jacket-copy writers more than for reviewers—and yet. That title story, a voice thing narrated by a supervisor walking a new hire through the office's interstate-flat banalities and deepest sinkholes ("Kevin Howard sits in that cubicle over there. He is a serial killer..."), resonates surprisingly with, say, the longest piece, "Somoza's Dream," where Orozco, like Llosa in The Feast of the Goat, crosscuts through the last day in the life of a Latin-American dictator, looking for insight in routine, though Orozco's prose hits more lyrical, portentous notes: a rare insect's "thorax over seven inches long inscribes in the air a slender and delicate arc of the deepest red-the red of arterial blood, of crème de cassis and rubies and the juice of roasted meat."
Strange music always seems to waft out of familiar instruments here, is the thing. Orozco, at a recent reading, spoke about the freedom he finds when writing within self-proscribed constraints. He doesn't give his book an epigraph, so I'll presume to suggest that "The ball is round, the game is ninety minutes, and the rest is theory" would make a swell one: his best stories explore the almost infinite potential for variation and play within the proscribed guidelines of a format, or a job. Or a life.
"Officer's Weep" drolly couches personal revelation in the bureaucratic vocabulary of police reports ("officer [Shield #647] ascertains incipient boner"), which is zany, but also invokes the specter of something vast just beyond the careful boundaries of language—it's on that threshold that the story, abruptly, ends. "Only Connect" passes a narrative baton from murder victim to killer to witness, arriving at an epiphany like a finish line, irritatingly in stride; more successful is the final story, "Shakers," which skips from Californian to Californian in the moment of an earthquake, all these discrete consciousnesses suddenly connected by the ground moving under their feet. This is it, finally, the thing that's been coming.
"Shakers," like most of the stories here, could be described as "modular," a word Orozco has used for his formally contained stories, and which also has echoes of the sprawling prefab Americana he frequently evokes. "Temporary Stories" is a triptych of temp jobs-stories within a story, about people in offices and files in boxes. One assignment: "the conversion of all records into a computerized database management system. Birth and death, marriage and divorce, the purchase and sale of home and property, the licensing of business entities and the bankruptcies of same—the paper trail of perfidious Fortune's sway over the lives of the inhabitants of the city would be represented as coded entries on a data field screen, tagged and cross-indexed for easy access and retrieval." Orozco ponders the infinite from the perspective of a short-term employee—because who among us, finally, is not a temp?