One of the greatest rewards of following an individual author's career is seeing their progress evolve before your eyes – being able to see how, with the passage of time, they have become a stronger writer, a better artist, how they have developed, honed, and sharpened their craft. In Francesca Marciano's case, with her new book of stories, we're talking about an author who has arrived – the apprenticeship is over. The people, places, messages and motifs are all familiar to us from her earlier work – indeed, she takes up this very issue in the story here entitled "An Indian Soiree" – but in The Other Language she's in full command of her themes, subject matter, and characters in a way she may not have been in, say, Rules of the Wild or The End of Manners (as good as those two novels are). Every story here has the absolute ring of truth and the authority of wise and intelligent observation. One, "The Presence of Men", achieves real literary greatness and deserves to be anthologized for hundreds of years to come.
This kind of maturity in fiction is extremely rare – I think maybe Ward Just is the best example of it I can think of. Nothing clunks awkwardly here, nothing falls with a thud. Even something that is usually a dagger to the heart for a fiction writer – making up lyrics to a rock song – comes off very well.
A consistent hallmark of strong fiction is the ability to make the reader smile with little jolts of recognition; this volume made me bust out laughing with its pitch perfect rendering of the way we email and text; made me nod in grim recognition of the way we might make a date with a person, knowing full well the very minute we are doing so that we have no intention of showing up; and will make all of us who are NYC subway rats feel like we're right back on the Q train going over the Manhattan Bridge to Brooklyn. The eye that is watching here catches it all, from a fourteen year old girl on the beach in the budding stages of becoming a cosmopolitan European woman to the way Indian tailors cut material to conjuring up the long lost, but instantly recognizable, theme song from "Born Free", just to take a few examples.
But great writing undertakes a dual job – not only does it strive to show us the everyday world in the author's unique and original way; it usually also pushes elements of the author's own personal experience up against the edges of questions like "What does it all mean?" and "What's the use of it all?" In one of these stories a young documentary filmmaker who starts out with great promise finally arrives at wisdom and self knowledge and respect in a way that has nothing to do with film. In two others young Italian women living in America burn with the desire to "become American" although achieving this may not be exactly what they hope it is. And the aforementioned "An Indian Soiree" is one of the best examinations of the disintegration of a marriage I have ever seen in imaginative literature. And it is so precisely because Marciano lets the mysteriousness of how it happens hang in the air without attempting a lot of explanation and analysis the way God only knows how many thousands of other story writers would.
Another – admittedly minor – thing I enjoyed about the way Marciano writes in these stories is that, although she name drops, she always does so with a light touch and in a way that the story perhaps requires. It's a function of the character of the characters, if I may put it like that – if someone mentions Terence Malick or Fellini it's to make certain someone else feel something. It's not done in such a way that we get the impression it's just the author showing off about how many books they've read or films they've seen.
The Jungian principle of synchronicity – which some people may prefer to categorize as blind, random chance – pops up twice, once in a small scene in the title story that leads off the book and a second time as the principle theme of a later story, "Quantum Theory". This is an example of another thing Marciano excels at here – a sort of gentle recurrence of theme and tone – of an idea popping up here and there, never over emphasized or overdone, never being used to bludgeon the reader over the head – and in my view it's an appealing way to write.
We'll close with some sparkling highlight examples of what you'll find here:
"We met in the bathroom at Jonathan Cole's house. You had on a pair of bright red sandals you had just bought in Italy."
She opened her mouth, feigning bewilderment.
"Come on. How can you remember that ?"
"We had quite a long chat in there, and I tend to notice women's feet," he said.
There's something terribly sad about a young girl sobbing on the street without restraint. You just know she must have a broken heart.
Only Italian men wear loafers without socks with their ankles showing this much beneath the trousers.
Without even asking permission to do so, Mrs. D'Costa supervised meals, went shopping for supplies and took care of logistics with military precision, as one does whenever a tragedy strikes and everyone else is walking around in a daze.
In summation: if you care about contemporary literature at all you cannot really afford to miss this collection.