In the Walled City

In this collection of short fiction, author Stewart O’Nan writes of people who, because of estrangement from themselves or others or confrontation with the world, try to find meaning and direction. Answers do not come easy however, and often characters fade toward some indeterminate future with little apparent realization of what is happening to them.

In the title story, Grey, a university professor, arrives home after a summer abroad to face fragmented feelings about his wife, from whom he is separated, and his male lover, a younger former student. Grey thinks dispassionately of his wife, who is summering on Nantucket with their children. His thoughts of Mason, his lover, run from a sordid fascination with Mason’s poverty to a rather bland recall of their sexual encounters. When he lacks the will, courage, and lust to pursue his relationship with Mason, he tries to return to his wife and a shattered domesticity.

“Mr Wu Thinks,” is the story of an immigrant Chinese grocer who struggles to learn to speak English in order to become part of a culture that he will never understand. His sons Lee and Tommy are completely assimilated into mainstream American life while his wife only wants him to retire. Finally, Mr. Wu realizes that there is a numbing sameness to his work, his home life, the city, even his classes and so quietly surrenders his desire to master English.

Larsen, a divorced father in “The Legion of Superheroes,” loses custody of his son. As a means of salvaging some connection with the boy, he acquires his son’s interest in collecting comic books. In a poignant turn, the comic books become a metaphor for his struggle against despair, as his son begins to drift away from his affection. The stories in IN THE WALLED CITY are vivid in their portrayal of people who live under burdens that are both mysterious and recognizable in their power to give a resonance to existence.