Former Casey resident Erin Pringle has released a collection of short stories, titled "The Whole World At Once" and published in May. The book is nine stories, each completely unrelated and unconnected except that they explore grief, mourning, and the toll such extreme emotions can take on the human psyche. Pringle wrote the book while working through her own periods of mourning, and has said of writing these tales, "I struggled a lot understanding a world that did not follow the rules it's supposed to in fiction."
Perhaps it is this struggle that led to such a richly crafted series of stories completely unlike anything I've ever read. Pringle's characters and their grief do not follow the expectations of fiction literature, which may be why the stories feel so incredibly real.
In every tale in this book, there has been a death or a brush with death. The characters vary in age, gender, and background, and often aren't even named or described. We instead view their lives through this filter of grief -- and none of them express that grief in the same way, and yet are all easy to understand and identify. The settings are nameless as well, and could easily be any small Midwestern town. People who grew up in rural areas will feel an eerie sense of stories they've grown up hearing or stories they've lived, a sense that this could happen or has happened here, and yet the pervasive thread of grief opens these stories up to anyone.
There is a sense that by reading these stories, we are encroaching on someone's private moments and seeing them at their most vulnerable. And yet, those moments touch deep into our hearts with their profound longing for some semblance of normal life, opening our eyes to the realization that perhaps the experience of grief is actually the most "normal" thing in life, as we all might experience it differently but will all experience it nonetheless.
Pringle's language is stark but poetic, and each story is beautiful in its heartbreaking simplicity and raw emotion. Random bursts of fragmented sentences mirror the fragmented lives we are witnessing, and the often staccato rhythm is jarring but forces the reader to truly focus on the emotions underlying the words. The style does not allow for skimming or trying to follow a narrative flow, but instead makes the reader pay attention to each thought, each image, and visualize or even feel what's left out -- drawing the reader into the grief and pain and confusion and making them see the things that aren't there in writing.
The lack of any use of quotation marks, even in the few stories that seem to follow a more traditional narrative, left me feeling as though I wasn't seeing these conversations taking place between characters, but rather that I was seeing their memory of conversations from long ago or dreams of conversations not yet happened. This interesting trick, I felt, made it less a process of reading a story and more as though I were floating through the characters' subconscious.
The experience of reading this book can be exhausting mentally and emotionally, and I found it impossible to read more than one story at a time without taking a long break to clear my mind after each one. Still, it's been over a week since I finished this book, and I'm also finding it impossible to forget. Each of the stories has, in its own way, stuck with me. Readers will, of course, identify with some stories more than others, but it will be hard not to connect with each and every one on some level.
The human experience isn't always pleasant, but it is always beautiful in some way. These stories remind us of that, and connect us to that thread of humanity that we all know but often shy away from. Because of that, "The Whole World At Once" isn't an easy read, but is definitely worth it.