The Ghosts of ‘Cities’

Cities, by Elizabeth Thorpe
Texture Press, 2016

Reviewed by Julia Hands

citiesCities, a collection of short fiction released last year by Elizabeth Thorpe, reads like a photo album. Each story homes in on a moment, an event, a person for only a few pages, but Thorpe’s small details define her characters and open up entire worlds in brief, literary snapshots. Though condensed, her stories hang together through the collection’s deeper themes of nostalgia, nature, and heartbreak. From two young friends who grow apart, beginning with a pair of shoes, to the effect of a young man’s death after a car accident, Thorpe’s stories focus on relationships—to others and to places. Thorpe thoughtfully displays her images to capture the momentum of life’s changes, and how quickly they pass by.

Thorpe opens the collection with the piece, “Port Townsend.” Her meditation on the ghosts of the Northwest town introduces the theme of nostalgia as it attaches to childhood and nature. Like the ghosts of Port Townsend “tucking packs of cigarettes under their mattresses,” Thorpe tucks references of her nostalgia for the Maine forest of her childhood into characters who move from forest to city. Once in the city, they search for moments of quiet in parks as a reprieve. This transition from rural to urban follows Thorpe’s own experience—a girl from Maine who moves to the city (Philadelphia) as an adult. In the collection as well, the stories that take place in the city consist of characters looking to return to the simplicity and how to find that simplicity in an urban setting. It’s in small towns like Port Townsend where these characters find peace.

As Thorpe grapples with the movement from the rural to the city in her stories, she explores the different facets of city life as well. The title story explores the relationship of a dancer and a man and how that relationship flourishes in his city but not in the dancer’s. The man means “nothing outside his city” to the dancer. Though it begins with the affair of the dancer and the man, it explores how the romance ends and the process of the dancer returning home after. At this point in the collection, Thorpe ties together city life and rural life, the first as a location of adult life and the latter as the first home. It’s in this first home that the dancer, like many of Thorpe’s characters, finds both solace in her relationship with the man and then solace following the relationship’s end.

Beyond geographical movement, Thorpe charts her characters’ maturity by their exes. In “Cities,” Thorpe hangs the piece on the narrative of the dancer and the man’s failed relationship. However, “Boyfriends: A Mixtape” most clearly tackles this theme. This collection of vignettes disguised as a story is a playlist of songs and exes that tracks an unnamed protagonist’s relationship history. The juxtaposition of vignettes titled with songs like “Everybody Hurts” and “The Last Worthless Evening” mark the passing of time and men who chart the character’s growth to where she’s ready for the man who wants to stay. Maturity here is the comfort the woman feels on the final track, a bookstore employee who can play “I’ll Back You Up” well enough “she can recognize the song.” The final track reflects how Thorpe’s stories, as well as this piece, desire that comfort and stability from both a partner as well as life.

The final piece of Cities, however, demonstrates how that stability can never be absolutely obtained. “Punctuation” manipulates sentence forms and transitions, down to the unstable structure of the piece, to uncover the different punctuations of grief and how it takes hold of the speaker. In this segmented short story, Thorpe strips clauses or throws away periods to make simple sentences sprawl over pages. She breaks apart her own language to demonstrate how the loss of a love throws the foundation of our individual worlds into chaos. Through her play with structure, Thorpe takes a familiar trope—the heartbroken woman—and undercuts her own assumptions, her characters, by breaking down the logic of her pieces to generate a new understanding of that heartbreak. As Thorpe undercuts her own desire for stability, both in plot and language, her collection attains a new level of sophistication as it reflects on how even what is assumed to remain constant (language) is only a temporary state of being.

Throughout the collection, Thorpe’s photographic style allows her to tackle these topics without sentimentality. She allows the reader to feel the particular freedom of jumping into a pool, and also the starkness of a frozen lake. As she moves from rural Maine to Philadelphia, from a traditional flash piece to a playlist of exes, Thorpe’s album of stories captures the minute undercurrents running under the life-altering events and amplifies them. These small moments enable her to take on broad themes and make them feel fresh and personal. Each ghostly piece illuminates its subject with flashbulb intensity, leaving readers a single image that resonates and lingers.