Who among us hasn’t noticed it, the strange doubling of forms and faces–?the echo in the world? The waves in rock, the veins in leaves, the ghostly flowerings of frost. As though god, deep in his labors, had suddenly run out of ideas, or, perhaps, surprised by the loneliness of his creation, had set out, in the eleventh hour, to stitch the world together: the sound of wind to the sound of water, the ruffling of field to the ruffling of fur, the memories of the living to the hopes of the dead. A familiar universe. A sea of small recognitions. A vast brotherhood of thoughts and things. This is what he dreamed.
Mark Slouka’s Lost Lake feels more like an extended prose poem than a collection of stories. It’s an elegiac, often melancholy, and quietly moral set of interconnected vignettes, heavy on setting and character but light on plot; reading it evokes the sensation of lying in a boat gently floating in the middle of the eponymous upstate New York lake during the last week of summer, with the mind wandering over the passing season’s events: it’s timeless and subtle, and works its way into the reader’s memory one careful word at a time.
The twelve stories in the collection are linked strongly by place–a resort community on Lost Lake, peopled largely by Czech and other immigrants who escape the bustle and heat of the city for their quiet cabins–and, apparently, by a narrator, who recounts his childhood summers through the eyes of both the child in those times and a middle-aged man who has been brushing up against these memories for a long time. The pieces are character sketches and vignettes more than stories–things happen, like the slaughter of snapping turtles or the affair of an exile’s wife, but the point isn’t so much what happens as what those events mean in the context of the lake and the community. Time is fluid in “Lost Lake”, moving at will between the lake’s genesis as a flooded valley and the narrator’s summers on the lake and the narrator’s return many years later. And the language, too, is important: “Lost Lake” rivals the best poetry for richly evocative language, and while reading some passages I would have to stop, go back, and read them again, just to savor how carefully they were put together.
Under the surface of “Lost Lake” there’s another story, a subtext of the Czech immigrants and refugees and the history they’ve left behind. This history bubbles to the surface occasionally: there’s a story about a legendary Czech smuggler who ferried people to Hungary during World War II and to Austria after the 1948 Communist coup; the exiled intellectual’s wife, who falls in love with a boy who swims in the lake; and the narrator’s father’s memories of partisans hanged on the road from Italy during World War I. But the history is handled subtly, deftly, so as not to overwhelm the present or the near past; the history colors the events of the stories, but never overpowers them.
Occasionally the sermon-like structure of the stories–?a generalization or aphorism, followed by a story that somehow elucidates the generalization in its specifics, followed by a concluding aphorism–?is too obvious and distracts from the light touch shown in most of the pieces. “Lost Lake” is subtle enough in its moral pronouncements that it never feels preachy, as in the narrator’s repulsion at the slaughter of snapping turtles that have been killing swans on the lake: “[j]ust so will evil sometimes undo itself, give birth to the sons and daughters who bury its fondest dreams.” And its lessons are frequently subversive, as in “The Lotus Eaters”, which celebrates an aimless idyll over the “siren song” of “all manner of work that might lead to lucre”.
Which is just the attitude in which one ought to crack open this book on the shore of your favorite body of water, lost in the mists of memory and language.