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English department

Further Interpretations of Real-Life Events
by Kevin Moffett

Simple Realism Dazzles in Further Interpretations of Real-Life Events

Kevin Moffett’s first short story collection begins with a trick. His title piece—entitled “Further Interpretations of Real-Life Events,” which won the 2010 National Magazine Award—is about an author describing the process of writing short fiction. Sounds autobiographical, right? It wasn’t until the end of the story that I realized the character’s name was not the author’s, and that he was just that—a character. This twist nearly led me to read the piece again with a new understanding, but then I realized it didn’t change anything. The story was just as believable as memoir as it was as short fiction; or perhaps, as an “interpretation of an actual event,” it’s a little of both. Either way, the story serves as a perfect introduction to a collection in which the author expertly depicts the beauty and absurdities to be found in the simplest moments of real life.

From theme parks to trailer parks, nursing homes to sand dunes, the premises and settings of these stories couldn’t be more different. Yet a vivid, pervasive humanity connects them all. Characters find themselves trapped, whether in their relationships, physical setting, or emotional state. They all are deeply sad without realizing it, and so they wait – for what, most don’t know. Moments stretch for pages as memories surface and simple decisions become weighty internal ordeals. Often the outcomes, especially in the case of the immigrant who swallows an expensive dental crown, are as inevitable as nature’s call.

If readers hope for thrilling tales of scandal or whimsy, they could find themselves bored within these pages. But if one has only a little patience, the stories are anything but dull. Cliffhangers are too cheap for Moffett’s world, where high-stakes suspense is instead fashioned from the simplest of situations. “Buzzers” takes place entirely in the mind of a character sitting on an airplane, yet the reader eagerly anticipates the conclusion. We wait with the old woman hoping for the return of a hallucinated gentleman, as with the newlywed couple desperate to discover why their car smells like something crawled in it and died. (The truth: something did, and it’s a symbol for their doomed marriage.)

These things may sound a bit absurd, but not in the skilled hands of Moffett. He seamlessly infuses the ridiculous into everyday life so that it serves not to raise our eyebrows, but to accentuate the ordinary and even the tragic. A man from Estonia works in a theme park which ludicrously exploits his culture for money, yet his struggle to reclaim his identity is the true focus of the story. Doctors in Halloween costumes inform a man of his terminal illness; his son later acknowledges the father’s death by filling out a crossword puzzle. That these strange juxtapositions feel completely natural within their contexts serves as a testament to the author’s brilliant ability to craft a story.

Moffett writes in a straightforward, conversational tone, always matter-of-fact but never lacking in simple beauty. Descriptions crackle with clever wordplay; a man’s face is not tired but “rummaged;” a field of grass is “shrill with sunlight.” Still more impressive is Moffett’s use of voice, the most distinct of which comes from the opening story’s narrator, Frederick Moxley. In this piece, which is meant to have been “written” by the character himself, he admits to being depressed and insecure about his writing. Through Moxley’s storytelling, it can be observed that the worries are well-founded: he is not a very good writer. He tries too hard to be clever, and his attempts at making poignant, writerly observations fall short. He describes his wife’s facial expression as a “lidless empty jug,” not realizing that his intended meanings are being lost in translation, just as they are in his attempts to reconnect with his estranged father.

Human connections such as these are Moffett’s recurring theme, devastatingly real in their trials and failures. No characters seem quite able to make themselves heard, or to truly understand the people around them. In “First Marriage,” Tad tries to communicate with his new wife but only manages to feel “like he was being led through a series of increasingly smaller doors.” He watches her, trying to feel what she feels: “Was something happening inside her? He waited for her face to show signs of relief. He was distracted by the sound of a coyote…If there was only one way to make Amy feel better, instead of a hundred, he would not have hesitated.”

It is in these deep, poignant moments that the author may sometimes lose his audience; their strangeness could seem off-putting, or his messages too deep and ambiguous for the average reader to grasp. Many stories are so similar in tone that they may run together in a reader’s mind. However, those who finish the book will surely be rewarded. “Stories are like dreams,” says Frederick Moxley’s father; if that’s the truth, then these stories are the kinds of dreams you mull over in your head for a long time after waking up. Moffett’s studies of human connection will have you pondering your own life and experiences—but they leave the final conclusions up for interpretation.