Review: Dissected Motives: Liam Callanan's Listen & Other Stories

Hillary Aarons

Liam Callanan’s collection, Listen & Other Stories, introduces a spectrum of characters and the winding grief, anxieties, loneliness, exhilarations, and desires that spin inside them and ricochet through disparate scenarios. A young woman who mothers her older lover’s children is overcome with feelings of fraudulence and the fear of endangering them. A Boy Scout watches over a bloodied companion in the wake of a bear attack. A son questions if his mother was ever really alive when all that he remembers of her are his father’s recordings of her scream. Callanan takes his readers from a town submerged underwater, to a burning convent, to a newsroom, to Berlin, and Alaska during World War II. While each of the stories takes on a diverse set of circumstances, in all, the reader greets fully feeling protagonists who fight against situations that confine them.

Callanan builds his characters through a collage of exposition. The telling of each story moves between passages that reveal in-the-moment action and dialogue, those that magnify the minute details of a scene, and those that expose the characters’ inner thoughts. Moments of personal reflection that strip characters to the core of their human drives disrupt the narrative voice, rendering the reader a complicit spectator of each story. In “Bedtime Story,” the “un-mother” Bridget’s moments of stream-of-consciousness made her irrefutably alive. Should she prepare spaghetti with a knife so she will be armed when her attacker breaks in, or should she cook without one so the weapon will be less accessible for her invader? This feeling of being alongside the character and within them is palpable in “Paper War.” The protagonist’s meditative tone allows him to both reflect on his experience searching for the remains of Japanese balloons in Alaska, and then zoom into remembered moments, playing them through. I had a bird’s-eye view of the narrator’s life in relationship to the search, and then I sat alongside him in the endless Alaskan non-night, sick on cigarettes, facing the inevitability of death.

Architecturally, the stories take the form of matryoshka nesting dolls, with each passage cocooning multiple mini-stories containing a lyric assortment of prose. “Bear Hunter” begins by charting young Boy Scout Jeremy’s experience in the woods after a bear attacks Eddie, a fellow scout. As the story progresses, Jeremy’s history of loss creeps into his narration, and it becomes clear how that history holds the overall story’s human heart. Even the recollection of Jeremy’s recent tragedy encloses smaller anecdotes from the past, all told through prose that varies in form, style, and voice. In “Bear Hunter,” Callanan incorporates the bold simplicity of a child’s speech patterns alongside rich descriptions, creating a young narrator who is vivid and in control of nuanced storytelling. The prose is so varied that by the story’s end, it does not seem unbelievable for this child, our protagonist, to deliver the expressive and syntactically complex finale:

It’s the bear hunter, deliberate and sure, always coming. And it’s that body, heavier in death the way bodies are, falling. I can feel it. I can hear it. I can see everything, despite the dark.

Callanan’s assortment of sentences, anecdotes, and stories speak to one another in their disparity in content, style, and meaning, but align in purpose to create the whole—the large, ornate doll of Callanan’s colorful collection.

The language of Listen brightens poignant and dark themes with humor and absurdity, giving way to stories that are meaningful and in each case, wildly funny. The narrator of “Flush” describes a sexual encounter, explaining how she was licked like “a giant glazed donut.” In “Bear Hunter,” Jeremy ponders how Eddie’s blood, after the bear attack, looks like “someone had dropped a big frosted chocolate cake in his lap.” Callanan disguises moving passages with unassuming sentences so that, often, it was not until I finished a section that I felt the language’s stirring impact. Listen is not oversaturated with metaphor or allegory; rather, Callanan underplays figurative language so delicately that, with each strong image, I could have missed its larger meaning. Perhaps this is the mark of a writer who trusts a story to give way to its own depth. In “Swimmers,” as Sam, his longtime admirer Esther, and her sister canoe through their gradually drowning town, Esther describes that what she “liked the most about Sam was that he was still growing into whatever he would be; he wasn’t done yet, hadn’t hardened or set.” The sentence, giving equal weight to a description of Sam as well as Esther’s surroundings, captures the story’s problem: neither Esther’s environment nor her people can be stopped from changing and unsettling into unsalvageable depths.

When I finished Listen, I felt I knew something about the richness in quiet moments of decision—the layers of desire and memory behind a person’s apparently simple actions, behind my own. My past transgressions became more palatable in my mind, steeped in their newfound complexity, enlivened by the intricate, interwoven motives fueling every story in Listen. Listen encourages empathy more than other work I’ve read lately. It is an occasion for readers to transform momentarily into the un-mother, the scout, the sister in the flooded city. “Once upon a time,” Callanan writes in the title story, “Listen,” “you could find within a scream the DNA of that world’s entire moment—its fears and ambitions and its strangely exuberant, apparently widespread belief that if you raised your voice high enough, you’d be heard.” When I closed the collection, a lingering sense washed over me—perhaps each of Callanan’s characters embodied a real, more fixed strand of myself, each character a distinct part of me that awakens when I attempt to reach beyond the bounds of circumstance to feel fuller, more heard.