(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

David Gates’s first collection of stories, The Wonders of the Invisible World, is regarded as continuing the high caliber of work found in his earlier novels. Here, too, Gates has created an original narrative voice, whose rhythms, intonations, and cultural references seem to capture the tenor of contemporary American life perfectly. In addition to skillfully suggesting the American vernacular, Gates is able to shape the rhythms of the American voice into a highly strung, jazzy stream-of-consciousness both humorous and serious.

Although in his early novels Gates has taken as his protagonists culturally sophisticated but emotionally tormented middle-aged men with a history of difficult or broken marriages, this type of man is the center of consciousness in only a handful of his short stories. Other stories feature the perspectives of contemporary gay men or elderly men from a previous generation. Half of the stories feature female protagonists who are treated with a similar mix of irony and compassion, whether they be bitter, man-hating alcoholics, middle-aged, conflicted feminists, or isolated, desperate housewives. No matter what the age, gender, or sexual preference of Gates’s characters, they are all struggling with either their own dark side or the dark sides of those close to them. This may involve alcohol or drug abuse, or relationship problems, such as infidelity, exploitation, abandonment, or divorce.

A clue to the general theme of the stories in The Wonders of the Invisible World can be gleaned from the title, which refers to the early American theologian Cotton Mather’s description of demonic spirits. For Gates, these demonic forces live within the individual, so that it is largely unconscious or rationalized evil motives and impulses that lead his men and women into loveless, lonely lives and to the subversion of their own best selves.

The Wonders of the Invisible World

The ten stories in this collection are told from the perspective of a variety of characters, young and old, male and female, straight and gay. However, the plots turn on the universal themes of disintegrating families, broken relationships, and unraveling lives. In the title story, “The Wonders of the Invisible World,” the protagonist is divorced and losing touch with his grown daughter. He is having an affair with a woman whose possible pregnancy puts a serious strain on their relationship. The protagonist’s hip, jazzy narrative voice, which threatens to disintegrate into incoherence, reflects the ragged quality of his life and his approach to it, which has gradually lapsed into a kind of moral inattention. When he loses his clarinet and alienates his girlfriend in the same evening, the reader sees that he is careless with regard to both his creative life and his love life. Acutely aware of his own fecklessness, he may not be aware, however, of the degree to which his losses may be the product of his own neurotic intentions.

A similar type of character appears in the story “A Wronged Husband.”...

(The entire section is 1256 words.)