In his first collection of short stories, The Theory of Light and Matter, author Andrew Porter details the lives of realistic people in unremarkable situations. By unremarkable, I do not mean to suggest that these stories ring with inconsequence or monotony, but instead, that the stories of these people are so normal that they strike a deep chord within us. The story of a little boy who deals with the guilt of his friend dying in his presence. A grad student who tumbles into a questionable relationship with her much older professor. A childless couple who house an international student and try to learn the balance between “parent” and “friend.” Each story feels like something any one of us could tell or hear from a friend: so personal, tender, and conversational that the characters spill from the pages and solidify into beloved companions. Porter writes in first person, adding to this deep appeal because each narrator speaks in his own strong, unique voice. Both men and women narrate these stories: people of various ages and backgrounds, but, despite this diversity, none sound false. Rather, they sound autobiographical, so vividly detailed and achingly honest that it’s hard to believe they’re fiction.
Porter’s striking writing style contributes to this tangible connection. He writes in short, simple sentences: no flowery prose rank with excessive adjectives or useless descriptions. Each detail adds to readers’ understanding and perception of the characters in that specific story; if knowing what breakfast cereal Character X enjoys, for example, will not advance or contribute to the tale, Porter omits it. Though this sparse style may appear at odds with deep meaning, he manages to convey complex ideas of loyalty, family and loss in his concise language. Showing us how the characters feel through their actions or inactions solidifies these themes. When Paul, for example, sneaks into his host son’s room, steals some weed and smokes a joint alone in the bathroom, it shows us his confusion and his yearning for release. Though we may not agree with their actions, following these narrators through their lives helps us understand their motivations more than any rambling monologue ever could.
Though the truth and beauty of Porter’s words reverberates, the most compelling aspect of his short stories – at least for me – was that they made me want to write. Not to write an academic paper or a lab report, but to document the fear, sadness and joy of everyday life. They made me feel like I have stories to tell, embedded within the monotony of class, relationships and mistakes. They reminded me that telling a good story doesn’t have to be obscure or extravagant. It can be one moment, one look, one conversation. It just has to be honest, to witness to those terrifying truths we’re too scared even to whisper to ourselves late at night. And if we’re brave, gritting our teeth against the horrible, beautiful normalcy of our lives, any one of us can tell a story like that.