the bigness of the world
In Lori Ostlund’s award-winning debut collection, people seeking escape from situations at home venture out into a world that they find is just as complicated and troubled as the one they left behind.
In prose highlighted by both satire and poignant observation, The Bigness of the World contains characters that represent a different sort of everyman—men and women who poke fun at ideological rigidity while holding fast to good grammar and manners, people seeking connections in a world that seems increasingly foreign. In “Upon Completion of Baldness,” a young woman shaves her head for a part in a movie in Hong Kong that will help her escape life with her lover in Albuquerque. In “All Boy,” a young logophile encounters the limits of language when he finds he prefers the comfort of a dark closet as he confronts the truth about his parents’ marriage. In “Dr. Daneau’s Punishment,” a math teacher leaving New York for Minnesota as a means of punishing himself engages in an unsettling method of discipline. In “Bed Death,” a lesbian couple travels to Malaysia to teach only to find their relationship crumbling. And in “Idyllic Little Bali,” a group of Americans gather around a pool in Java to discuss their brushes with fame and end up witnessing a man’s fatal flight from his wife.
In The Bigness of the World we see that wherever you are in the world, where you came from is never far away.
EXCERPTS: Read excerpts from The Bigness of the World.
Fiction Writers Review
“I can’t help but imagine how O’Connor might react to its stories, full as they are of godless homosexuals scattered across the globe, whereas O’Connor’s work is unapologetically regional and almost dogmatically Catholic. Even with this wide discrepancy in subject matter, Ostlund’s book is one O’Connor might have chosen herself, so similar are their aesthetics. In fact, Ostlund’s characters in many ways resemble the ones that O’Connor is always pushing toward their inevitable moments of grace—stubborn, overeducated folks who value rationality and discretion to the point of personal isolation.”
[Read J.T. Bushnell’s review]
“Ostlund’s stories are so freakishly focused and darkly atmospheric that you may find yourself especially noticing your fellow human animals’ oddities in the days after you read them, then stepping back for perspective. Ostlund could ask for no better indicator of this collection’s success.”
[Read Pamela Miller’s review]
“Ostlund, whose work has been included in the Best American and also PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories, is a writer to watch. She constantly delights the reader with the subtlety of her insights as well as the carefulness of her prose, as we find that beneath the comic observations of cultural misunderstanding, or a couple’s quirky habits, lies a genuine melancholy – and the sense that while there is absurdity in reticence, there is sadness in it too.”
[Read Sylvia Brownrigg’s review]
All of us, no matter our age or experience, are trying to grasp the bigness of the world. When we read the work of a writer like Ostlund, it almost seems possible.
[Read Joe Mill’s review]
What Lori Ostlund is able to do that many writers fail to do is capture so authentically realisations, moments of change, and the aching truths within her stories.
[Annie Clarkson’s review / interview]
Overall, this is an impressive collection of stories that range widely from tragic to comic (often within the same story). Ostlund has a keen insight into human behavior that allows the reader to recognize themselves in characters with whom, outwardly, they have absolutely nothing in common. And her writing has an old school quality that draws attention not to her style, but to the characters and their stories, which are always compelling.
[Read Laura Pryor’s review]
One of the most remarkable aspects of The Bigness of the World is how Ostlund explores not only the physical geography of this world but also the intimate inner geographies of her varied characters. These inner lives are detailed with such dense, tightly coiled and precise language it becomes easy, as a reader, to find yourself immersed in their hopes, their worries, their minute obsessions, joys and fears. Ostlund wields language in terribly complex ways building exceptional sentences, long and swollen with nuance and history, creating narratives that take the long way around. Each story holds a certain very smart wit that endears.
[Read Roxane Gay’s review]
There’s a lot to smile at in The Bigness of the World, Lori Ostlund’s Flannery O’Conner Award-winning collection—but there aren’t a lot of jokes. In fact, over the course of a dozen stories, Ostlund presents all kinds of suffering: death, self-mutilation, jail, child abuse, poverty, and an overabundance of breakups. As the title suggests, Bigness is full of characters confronted with the unmapped and unexpected, with newness and unthinkable difference; even as Ostlund’s characters wish for stillness, shit happens. As the narrator tells us at the end of the title story, “the familiar terrain of our childhood would soon become a vast, unmarked landscape.” In depicting this unpredictable world, Ostlund is forced to leave behind the short story’s generic punch-line structure. While her stories often end with surprises, these endings, happily, never really seem to be the point.
Reviewer Anna Clark reviewed THE BIGNESS OF THE WORLD as a video review for the November issue of The Collagist.
SAN FRANCISCO MAGAZINE
“The Bigness of the World wastes no time in establishing Ostlund as one of the new front-runners in Bay Area short fiction.”
PUBLISHERS WEEKLY, STARRED REVIEW
Ostlund’s remarkable debut collection deftly navigates the treacherous shoals of decaying relationships in which the protagonists often escape to faraway lands in order to find themselves, or, at the very least, their partners. Fate, for the globe-trotting teacher-entrepreneur of “And Down We Went,” takes the form of an untimely bird dropping; in “Bed Death,” it is a Malay waitress who casually takes a sip of orange juice from the narrator’s glass. Ostlund’s artful prose is playfully complex and illuminating, evocative and unsentimental, as in “Upon the Completion of Baldness,” in which the narrator’s girlfriend returns home from a trip completely bald. Remarks the narrator, “the chilly desert air seemed to startle her as though, in that moment, she realized that there was a price to be paid for having no hair, and while I still said nothing, I was happy to see her suffer just a bit.” A specific disenchantment inhabits these stories—the disenchantment of the uncompromising romantic confronted with the evaporative nature of love. Each piece is sublime.
“Reviewers can be very protective of first-time authors. We watch as they emerge like fragile hatchlings into the literary world – hollow-boned and downy soft – and pray that an indiscriminate critic doesn’t stroll by and bite off their head… Not that Lori Ostlund will need much protection. The Bigness of the World, Ostlund’s first collection of short stories, was good enough for the judges of the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. She won the prize in 2008… Deservedly so, for Ostlund has an ear, an appendage often ignored by writers in favor of the flashier eye.”
Set among such divergent places as small-town Minnesota and an Albuquerque airport, a Belizean café and a hotel swimming pool in Java, Ostlund’s Flannery O’Connor Award–winning debut collection depicts sexually and socially repressed Americans. Men and women who wind up feeling displaced when they fail to escape the influence of their past: ineffectual parents, fathers and lovers who disappear, teachers who struggle to connect with their students, and lifelong obsessions with language. In “Bed Death,” two lesbians flee to Malaysia as a couple to teach only to find their relationship crumbling as they are accepted in their new environment. In “All Boy,” a young logophile encounters the limits of language when he finds he prefers the comfort of a dark closet over the struggle to make friends at school. The narrator in the title story, one of Ostlund’s many smart, manner-conscious characters, expresses her fastidious babysitter’s contempt for “the American compulsion toward brevity.” Witty and sharp, Ostlund has crafted 11 surprising and often very funny tales that remind us just how vast the world really is. — Jonathan Fullmer
An Excerpt from a Story in The Bigness of the World. Originally published in Hobart.
In a way, this story reflects my farewell to academia, academia being a route I once saw myself going. Within that world, and especially the world of literary theory, which I was enamored of for a time, it is very easy to start creating one’s own script—a script that involves all sorts of asides and tangents that interest the theorist, who then starts to believe that those tangents and asides are the point, or needs to believe that they are the point—and in the process the theorist misses the main point, the real story that is going on under his or her own nose.
I wanted to be that person for a while, and then one day, I came to my senses. I guess I wanted a narrator who was working under those conditions, but applying the process to her own life—with the same result. She misses the point.
At this point, there had been only the vague reports that Mr. Matthers was teaching with both hands held in the air, not fully extended like in a hold up, but partially, with his hands sprouting out just above his shoulders. I began to hear more specifically about this strange behavior from my students, many of whom were in his science classes. One day, while my tenth graders worked at their desks diagramming sentences, which, for the record, I still consider a worthy endeavor, I crept down the hall and around the corner to Mr. Matthers’s room. He was wearing a tan lab coat with Let’s Bake Bread stenciled across the front, standing before the class with his heels together and his toes pointed out at a ninety-degree angle, in what we were taught was the appropriate stance for reciting the Pledge of Allegiance or acknowledging “The Star-Spangled Banner” when I was young. And yes, his hands were aloft, not gesturing or even keeping rhythm with what he was saying but simply floating, perfectly still, as though he had thrown them up in a moment of surprise and forgotten them there. However, that night at dinner, when I informed Felicity that I had gone down to Mr. Matthers’s classroom and witnessed his strange behavior firsthand, she remained dismissive. “Maybe it’s part of a science experiment,” she suggested, chewing as she spoke.
“A science experiment,” I replied incredulously, though I paused to swallow first. “The students say that he teaches the entire class like that. How could it possibly be part of a science experiment?”
“Well, perhaps Mr. Matthers is experiencing problems with his circulation. Perhaps he is simply following the advice of a doctor,” she had suggested next. “Perhaps,” I replied. “But wouldn’t he explain this to the students if that were the case?”
“Perhaps Mr. Matthers is of the opinion that his duty to the students is to explain science,” she replied, getting in the final “perhaps,” though I knew that she did not care for Mr. Matthers either.