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Alone again, naturally

In Orozco’s tales, characters lacking digital distraction face up to themselves

(Jing Wei for The Boston Globe)
By Ted Weesner Jr.
Globe Correspondent / June 5, 2011

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To read Daniel Orozco’s collection of short fiction, “Orientation,’’ is to picture yourself gripping a mallet or some other blunt object, weighing whether to smash your shiny smartphone to smithereens. While your mobile unit is likely equipped with GPS, this versatile book explores a far deeper, more pinpoint positioning system. The evidence, via these stories, suggests that the psychic devices we’re left with when alone — were we not gawking at our blinking electronic devices — would appear to define what it means to be alive.

Amazingly, for a book that presents itself as milieu-hopping and very often consumed with how the 21st-century citizenry occupies itself in various states of solitude, the digital realm is almost entirely absent here. Walt Whitman, whose words surface as an Orozco epigraph, said that he was trying to “vivify the contemporary fact’’ in his work. Certainly Orozco seems to have a similar fictional mission. Yet could it be that a human being wielding an iPhone does not an interesting character make? Orozco, in his one brief mention of cellular behavior, describes the “prattle and yammer’’ of commuters caught in traffic. His inspired collection, it would seem, marks an effort to tune out this babble and to focus, instead, on the individual stripped of 21st-century gadgetry — unarmed and disarmed.

On one extreme, there’s the nameless Vietnam War vet in “Hunger Tales.’’ Obese to the degree that he requires a pulley device to get out of his love seat, he’s waiting for a neighbor to deliver an unhealthy store of hot dogs. As he waits, he drifts into a reverie. Rather than a state of comfort, it’s one of ill ease, of trying to come to grips with one’s very existence. As Orozco puts it, “He thought about the last shower he ever took, and the needle-spray of water on his skin. He thought about the other things he missed. Driving, with the window down. Sex. Friends. His feet. . . . He thought about the last beach he ever saw — the smell of the ocean, its tug and surge around his calves, and the suck of wet sand under his heels. He loved the beach.’’

When he falls from his couch, trying to grab empty bags of tortilla chips and lick away any remaining salt, he suddenly “made fists of his hands, and hit himself in the face five times.’’ In coming fist-to-face with the difficult boundaries of both physical and psychic self, this character has no mobile phone to grab and detour his anxieties. Instead, he faces the simple and difficult fact of being alive. As brutal as this is, Orozco’s creation U-turns from fulsome loathing of the self to daydreaming again of the beach, which he runs, “fleet and swift, the balls of his feet barely disturbing the sand and leaving no trail for anyone to follow.’’

Duck into any one of our established masters of the contemporary short form — whether Alice Munro or Mary Gaitskill or Jhumpa Lahiri — and both their subject matter and style would be quickly familiar. And yet in “Orientation,’’ Orozco moves just as fleetly and swiftly as his fat man on the beach. In the nine stories that make up this book, the protagonist might be a freshly-hired laborer or president-in-exile, a traffic cop or temporary worker. His range of style exhibits a similar sweep. To acidly comic effect, the opening story strikes the pedantic cadences of a manager orienting a new employee. Another is written as a series of police reports, departing hilariously and poignantly from form as the two cops fall awkwardly in love and fold this awkwardness into their write-ups. In the final virtuosic story, “Shakers,’’ the point-of-view roves an earthquaked California, landing on an immobilized hiker with a shattered knee. A rattlesnake curls up on his warm belly, and yet the birds are singing, the sky is boiling with stars, and suddenly he has “some vague and elemental conviction about wholeness or harmony or immortality.’’ Orozco then spins a postcard platitude on its heartrending head: “How cool is this! he will think. Wish you were here! he will think.’’

About two years ago the writer Alain De Botton lamented, in his book “The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work,’’ the dearth of contemporary writers taking on the realm of life on the job. If Orozco has shorted us — at least explicitly — on the pervasive impact of technology, he very richly limns how our daily labors inform who we are. He can bring to life our more quotidian challenges, whether it’s a paralegal facing a weeping client or an office worker confronting the confines of her own perfectionism or a bridge worker witnessing a suicide. But he can also enter the world of an exiled criminal dictator and anticipate our current fascination with the preposterously pedestrian home life of Osama Bin Laden. Either way, we readers are given an insider’s vantage on the many ways human beings contend with themselves in private. Granted, minus a smartphone, and thankfully, conjuring a very healthy appetite for a hammer.

Ted Weesner Jr., a writer in Somerville who teaches at Tufts University, can be reached at tedweesner@gmail.com.

ORIENTATION: And Other Stories
By Daniel Orozco
Faber and Faber, 162 pp., $23