What We Were Doing and Where We Were Going
by Damion Searls

Reviewed by Steven Gillis


Published by Dalkey Archive Press, 2009   |   101 pages

The application of experience—personal, perceived, researched, witnessed, the raw want and wonder—is what transforms the creative mind into that of a serious writer. In Damion Searls’s captivating first collection, What We Were Doing and Where We Were Going, the imagination is brought into full fold with the author’s uncompromising view of the universe he inhabits. The five stories in Searls’s collection shine with a sense of the old world made modern, the influences—and at times retelling—of works by Gide, Hawthorne, Inoue, Nabokov, and Landolfi spark each narrative with brilliantly constructed “newness.”

What then does all this mean? For starters, Searls is his own man, unafraid to tackle weighty subjects in a way that entertains and enlightens without losing himself in the stylized calisthenics of so many modern writers. Searls does not set out to be another in the long line of short story wizards consciously influenced by George Saunders and Donald Barthleme. (Not that there is anything to criticize about either of these genuinely monumental writers, but such imitation has run its course.) With Searls, the stories and language of each piece in What We Were Doing are placed front and center, without hijinks or pyrotechnics. The question of how to live one’s life, and what constitutes a life fulfilled, dance and soar through each of the collection’s tightly written tales.

In the opening piece, “56 Water Street,” the narrator is a would-be writer named Giles whose entire existence is wrapped up in the process of creating “novels” that never fully materialize in the way Giles imagined. So intent is Giles on his work—“Quiet, I’m writing!” he exclaims whenever his routine is challenged—that he can barely spend time with his lover, Angela, and is distressed by thoughts of any events that might take him away from his work. Giles’s best friend, Simon, counsels him in regard to his habits and how he will lose Angela if he continues to live this way. Simon, however, harbors his own feelings for Angela and, while he gives Giles strong advise about taking action, he does none of those things himself. Ultimately, a third friend intervenes with consequences that raise the issue of what constitutes a life well lived.

All of the narrators in Searls’ stories are either writers, would-be writers, or individuals drawn to describing the world in a specific setting. In “A Guide To San Francisco,” the narrator sits in a bar preparing to describe the city to a friend. He divides what he has seen into four subtopics: The Sky, The Cables, Pentimento, and Millifluer. The retelling invites the reader to address the underlying issue being raised by Searls: What is more significant, the brief experiences we have or the way we are able to forever relive and remember them?

In his “other life,” Searls is a well-respected translator of some of Europe’s greatest writers, and he skillfully applies European sensibilities in style and theme to his own work. Each story in What We Were Doing crackles with a crisp brilliance of prose rarely seen by American writers at work today. There is a respect for ideas and a fearlessness in presenting the actions of the mind as the actions on the page. In the collection’s sage concluding story, “Dialogue Between the Two Chief World Systems,” Searls synthesizes the themes found in all his work, drawing into conflict the tension between the social and individual life, the tension between personal experiences and second-hand impressions that nonetheless live in our memories. Throughout, Searls is a masterful storyteller, his work at once accessible and unique. What We Were Doing and Where We Were Going is a debut collection not to be missed, and completely justifies Searls, should he bellow from the sidelines, “Quiet, I’m writing!”

Steven Gillis is the author of the novels Walter Falls, The Weight of Nothing, and Temporary People, as well as the short story collection, Giraffes. A second collection of Steve’s stories—The Principles of Landscape—will be published in 2010. Steve teaches writing at Eastern Michigan University and is the founder of 826 Michigan and t he co-founder of Dzanc Books in partnership with Dan Wickett.

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