Short Story Review – Stefan Sprenger – Dust

This short story review has been imported from my now-defunct review website.  I will progressively import the remaining and available reviews throughout the coming months, all of which can be found here.

There’s a scene in American author John Updike’s novel, Rabbit at Rest, where the protagonist, Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom switches a light on in his home and reflects that we leave a part of ourselves on everything we touch, even if it’s just the tiniest droplets of oil from our fingertips, even if it’s just the emotional markings from a failed relationship or friendship.  The scene is indicative of Rabbit’s gradual understanding that he, like all people, makes but a small mark on the world, but it’s still a mark; he recognises he is soon to leave the world and these thoughts represent his object-minded and matter-based attempt to place himself within the world he has lived in and observed since he was born.  Rabbit realises that we are, in a sense, to echo Danutė Kalinauskaitė’s story, Just Things, the compilation of the objects we interact with and possess.

Stefan Sprenger’s Dust (trans. Dustin Lovett) inverts this concept.  Instead of a person being the accumulation of their objects, it is in fact the detritus of a physical space that exist in toto due to the goings-on of the people around them.  Dust, believe it or not, acts as a kind of storage device or battery for emotion, becoming charged by the interactions and feelings of individuals in its immediate vicinity.  Strange, but perhaps it bears research:

The emotion discovered in the Burgenfeld dust plunged the group of researchers into embarrassed confusion: they knew that type and composition of this emotion had to be explored.  After all, once a morphogenetic field is tapped, it must be exhausted then and there, or else continue to have influence in unknown ways from that point on.  Nonetheless, they were understandably afraid of what they might find – was it possible that they might discover a new means of precisely measuring all emotion that would render their previous research into human psychology obsolete?

Dust shifts between the story of the (mad?) scientists researching the improbable aspects of dust they seem to have uncovered, Frau H’s excessively dusty studio, and the cliché musician Klubka who irritates his manager as much as everyone else.  Dust is anathema to the mixings of paints and the tuning of strings; it is no accident that Frau H and Klubka, artists both, are affected by and interested in, dust and how best to reduce its effects.

[One of the researchers] cleared her throat, stared into space for a moment, and then said so softly that only those next to her could hear: “It seems that dust is ashamed of people.  For what they do.  How they do it.

Sprenger’s story is an exercise in understanding how the miniature affects the macro, how it can be true that a person may honestly care about an earthquake on the other side of the planet which kills a hundred thousand people, but will forget it the moment they stub their toe and curse in pain.  It’s why, to a huge elephant, a tiny wound can pain, and why, to a human, a small, insignificant looking red mark may be the herald of disease and death.  Smallness or largeness means nothing in terms of effect; to extend this, Sprenger suggests that just as we affect dust we are affected by it.

The researchers discover – hardly a secret – that dust is the accumulation of dirt, muck, skin cells, dandruff, dead insects, crushed rocks, and so on.  Dust is, in short, us, and if not entirely us it’s also a great deal of our ordinary environment mixed together and pulverised.

The third of the story devoted to the scientists is a mad-cap, mad scientist style sequence of increasingly bizarre events.  It’s also the least effective from a narrative viewpoint, but without we would be unable to appreciate the nuances of the remaining two thirds.  Frau H and Klubka’s ruminations on dust and how it affects their lives and livelihoods is interesting in itself – Sprenger is a good writer, and his characters speak well about their situations and passions – but made immensely more interesting when paralleled alongside the scientists.

Klubka is the most endearing character in the story, though he begins – note above – mired in the broadly drawn strokes of his stereotypical construction.  He’s the archetypal musician, moody, melancholic, difficult to deal with, brilliant, poor.  And passionate – and that’s his saving grace.  Sprenger refuses to over-write Klubka’s passion, but the characters fondness and dedication to his craft remains believable and attractive.  More than Frau H, who at times seems to act simply as counterpoint to Klubka; the musician believes, and when he talks at length about the way in which things (dust) intrude upon his craft, he is magnetic.

Dust is a story greater than the sum of its parts, without any excessive weaknesses and quite a few strengths, but it’s an odd story to pin down.  The concept of dust acting as a kind of storage system for the emotions of people around it is proposed, discussed, and then dropped, and though there are tenuous links within Frau H and Klubka’s stories, they remain just that – tenuous.  One wishes Sprenger did more with this striking concept, but on balance the three parts harmonise well and it’s difficult to see how, in a short story, one could better refine the concepts as presented.  Dust is odd by a third, enjoyable and interesting by two thirds, and on the whole, a good read.

Author Stefan Sprenger
Title Dust
Translator Dustin Lovett
Nationality Lichtenstein
Publisher Dalkey Archive Press

Please visit the Short Story Reviews page to see all of the available reviews.

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