A Sense of the Whole by Siamak Vossoughi

I’m very glad I made the snap decision to buy this book after hearing Siamak Vossoughi read from it a few months ago. These electrifying stories are gleaming jewels, both very simple and very deep: absolute distillations where every word is perfect. Vossoughi’s writing reminds me of both Hemingway and Brian Doyle, which is a weird thing to say; but he encompasses both the koan-like, deceptively plain profundity of Hemingway and the profuse, excited, love-saturated celebration of Doyle. (Also, basketball.) Vossoughi’s characters are young and old, male and female, frequently Iranian-American (like the author) but not always; they are seeking, they are open and curious, and I find them inspirational (genuinely, not in the insipid way). They are also sometimes writers, which I appreciate and which feels autobiographical again, although I wouldn’t want to extrapolate that these stories are generally autobiographical (a too-easy assumption that’s often false).

A boy making a vulnerable but significant move in the classroom watches his teacher: “Mrs. Pardo didn’t look up or pause or anything, and he knew she wouldn’t look up or pause or anything, and she knew he knew it and that was a kind of love.” Two boys who have let their captured bees fly away silently muse about the mysteries of girls. “We couldn’t open that up between us because it would be like floating off into some vast and endless sky. So, we turned to something more certain and we talked about where those two bees on strings were by now.” In the story “Proverbs,” an Iranian-American child involves her parents and then a widening circle of the community in her homework when she is asked to explain the meanings of several American proverbs. I love that this story invokes the beauty and power of language, and the difficulties of translation, and the gift of sharing. Such a story could have been about alienation and discomfort, but here it is celebratory.

There is much here about the power of language, actually, as in “So Long”: “When I was a kid my father used to break my heart and send me soaring at once by the way he would say when he dropped me off at school, ‘Have fun.'” Later in the same story, “…it evened out everything that was vast and unknowable about America to remember that I could always be a listener, I could always take in somebody else’s America and grow my own by doing so, and know that I would have something to work with after doing that because at the very least, my America was a growing America.” Something about my own growing America, growing my own, feels revelatory to me. I tell my students that it’s important that we are all always learning and growing and aware that we don’t know it all, that the moment we think we know it all, we stop learning, and that’s where we fail. This feels related, and beautiful.

In “The Trophy,” I thought of Brian Doyle again. A shopkeeper at a trophy shop refuses a sale, instead intervening (against habit) in what he sees as a mistake about to be made. There is an empathy and a vulnerability to stories like this; it feels like these characters take the kinds of risks that we all wish we did.

The final two stories in the collection, “So Long” and “Nobody Died,” feel like the perfect choices, like everything the book had been building toward. I immediately went back to the beginning, in fact, to see if they all felt this good, once I’d gotten into Vossoughi’s rhythm, or something; but these final two still feel like standouts. I needed this in my life, and I’m already considering which story to teach in my upcoming Short Fiction class.

Vossoughi’s stories are very short – some just two pages, most four to five. And they’re perfect. Do yourself a favor and buy this book.

Rating: 9 apples.

One Response

  1. […] A Sense of the Whole, Siamak Vossoughi […]

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