Dawn Raffel is not a prolific writer. She has published three books, about ten years between each, and the total words for all thre, being a little over 100 pages each with a lot of dialogue and short paragraphs, is maybe 60,000 words.
She a prose poem mistress, a precise and exact creator of perfect sentences. Like Ben Marcus, we imagine her laboring over commas and periods all night long, taking a week on a single paragraph to get things just right (write?), then sending the prose off to Lish for a fine-tuning perspective.
Can we call her work “fiction” or better, memoir? Again, like many Lish writers, her pros focuses on family, either hers or the memory of her father an dmother — Carrying the Body, a novella, is about a young girl and her father, almost with overtones of the Elekkra complex, delving into the complex relationship between parent and sibling,
From Redbook’s fiction editor, 16 short stories (some of which have appeared in various literary magazines) that coolly explore the human heart in pared-down prose. Most of the tales are set in the Midwest, where the land and the lakes seem as menacing as the relationships within families, marriages, and friendships. Many, including the title story, are about childhood; reflecting today’s conventional wisdom, Raffel’s children are surrounded by disaster, dysfunction, and despair. In “We Were Our Age,” a young girl’s friendship with a boy is shadowed by the drowning death of the boy’s brother. The narrator of “The Other R’s” recalls how she, her sister, and their mother became involved with a neighborhood tragedy when a family whose last name also began with R “had something the matter with their baby.” In “Something Is Missing of Yours,” a young girl caught in the middle of her parent’s unhappiness struggles to find a refuge of her own. The most accomplished work is the title story, in which Raffel lets a snowstorm that closes streets and schools become a metaphor for sexual difference as two sisters observe the activities of the boys across the street, who “were always breaking bones.” Other notable tales describe a troubled marriage in which a husband bets that his wife will be seduced by a friend (“The Trick”); a confused old woman who goes to visit a doctor at an address a beloved, long-dead friend had once given her (“The Seer”); and two alienated people who head north on a surreal search for a mythical house that offers peace and security (“Nightjars”). The weakest piece in the collection is “City of Portage,” a brief, self-consciously metaphorical history of Wisconsin’s founding seen through a widow’s eyes. Original, clever, and finely wrought, but too minimalist to live. Low-fat lit in need of some nourishment.
A recent critical essay was posted online at Transatlantica and, albeit a bit stuffy with jargon, examines Raffel’s first two books and the family theme in depth.
Last year, Dzanc Books published her third silm volume, Further Adventures in a Restless Universe, and shows Raffel’s brevity is as strong, if not stronger, in the first two.