Unlocking the Air

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

In her long and distinguished writing life, Ursula Le Guin has comfortably occupied the realms of outer and inner space, and the uncertain spaces between. Unlocking the Air: And Other Stories explores the extremes and vicissitudes of reality with masterful linguistic and imagistic control.

In each of the collection’s eighteen stories, the author establishes a free-floating milieu in which reality is loosened from parochial politics and prejudices. Le Guin frequently deconstructs the basic elements of short story form—plot, character, setting, point of view—turning them around, upside down, inside out. The effect is to dislocate the reader in time and space, and so clarify meaning.

Consistent with Le Guin’s undoing of standard expectations, the stories of Unlocking the Air defy easy categorization. They can be loosely grouped in terms of story type, narrative voice, or degree of realism. What one story uses as its focusing element, however, the next may refract through a lens, or break up entirely.

The first story of the collection, “Half Past Four,” is a tour-de-force of shifting perspectives. It is composed of eight vignettes or scenes, each containing the same character names and linked with the same visual details. Each vignette takes place at half past four in the afternoon, and this proves to be the only constant. Relationships shift; names and generations are interchanged. It is as if each scene occurs in an alternate universe. At the center of this cosmos is “Mirroring,” the still point around which time and events revolve like the chips in a kaleidoscope. The last scene, appropriately called “The Story,” is really the first. It contains the clearest relational line between four generations of characters—the white light from which the other vignettes are fashioned. As Ann says in “Living in Yinland,” “Everything backwards. But it works.” “Half Past Four” sets the tone for the stories that follow.

“The Professor’s Houses,” like its namesake by Willa Cather, has as its central character a man suffering a spiritual dislocation. Le Guin’s professor spends years building and perfecting a miniature Victorian house. His preoccupation with the details of the house is so great that he is uncertain at times where he really lives. This perfectly constructed little story is itself a miniature house in which the desire for stasis is balanced against the inevitability of change.

The collection’s centerpiece, “Ether, OR,” calls to mind Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology with its multivoiced, relational narrative. Le Guin’s setting, however, is a living town, not a graveyard, and her story lacks the bitter fatalism of Masters’ poem. As the title’s pun suggests, the story plays on the themes of constancy and mutability, the substantial and the ephemeral.

The multiple narrators of “Ether, OR” are citizens of a mythical small town in Oregon that has the distinct quality of being moveable. Every once in a while, for no apparent reason, it relocates either west or east of the mountains, so that the fisherman wakes up to find the sea gone, or the rancher must take a mountain road east to get back to his land. Each of the citizen- narrators wants something. The teenage truck driver wants fast wheels out of town. The rancher’s son wants direction. The realtor wants to be justified. One woman wants to be loved for what she is; another wants to give love away. The grocer, J. Needless, once tried to return to his childhood home, a place his mother called the Outskirts of Heaven. He found it gone, replaced by smoggy suburbia. Painfully aware of the paradise he has lost, he wants to find it again.

The one constant is Edna, who has had relationships and children with most of the men in the town. Now in her sixties, she has spent her life caring for the wants of others, searching for a glory “somewhere inside it all.” Edna—Eden—Eve, the original mother who “could conceive by taking thought,” embodies for all of them the slow journey back to paradise. This journey is not so much retrieval of innocence as it is rediscovery after pain. Yet Edna is a goddess unawares. Frustrated, she observes that she has “no range, no freedom to walk in the hidden places.”

On the other hand, Tobinye Walker is a lame time traveller forced generations ago to settle in Ether. Because he is an...

(The entire section is 1820 words.)