The Invisible Hand
Nathan Leslie
Hamilton Stone Editions (Short Fiction)

Reviewer: Charles Rammelkamp

Nathan Leslie often arranges his short fiction collections around a theme. Madre features stories that deal with motherhood; Sibs is stories about brothers and sisters in various combinations and situations; Drivers involves cars, and Believers is stories about snake-handlers and other religious adherents.

The dozen stories that make up The Invisible Hand all hinge on the father figure. In the first, “Baby Carrots in Two Hundred and Forty-Four,” it’s the inability of the male narrator to conceive a child, and thus become a father, that drives the narrative. Told in a list of two hundred and forty-four enumerated facts and observations (“113. This is the only way to tell the story.”), the story, like all the others in this cryptic collection, does not actually reach a conclusion or resolve a dramatic tension but instead, dreamlike, explores the implications. The narrator’s medical condition (oligospermia) weighs heavily on his mind. He sulks, loses his temper. He dreams that he goes to the factory where baby carrots are manufactured (“165. The dream of the baby carrots,” like something out of Tchaikovsky), whittling down whole carrots to the miniatures that are sold in bags, clearly drawn there by the metaphorical prospect of “making babies.” In describing the baby carrot, he seems to describe a newborn infant (“237. I could feel the head of the baby carrot crunch in my mouth…”). The story ends: “243. Eat the conundrum, I thought. 244. Eat it good.”

Leslie’s stories do not follow the traditional linear plot model. How the story is told is as central to the author’s art as any insight into fathers and children. “Ninety-Nine Facts Concerning My Father” is another story told in the form of a list (“14. My father told me once that he hated lists.”). The father is a violent man, threatening his son, confessing one night toward the end, when he is drunk, that he’d tried smothering his son one night when the boy was six. “I didn’t want you. I tried to snuff you out.” As far as revelations go, it’s a whopper, a sort of climax, but ultimately it’s just another bullet point.

The title story, “The Invisible Hand,” we learn, is the confidences of a man to his fiancée on the eve of their wedding – a warning, really, about his father. The story concludes: “What is the story? Is there a story? I don’t know. I’m telling you all this in hopes you’ll understand. As you know, he won’t be there when we walk down the aisle.”

“Silent Treatment,” which also involves an absent father (he goes to a “conference” in Boise, Idaho. “We never heard from him again.”), likewise takes on the concept of “storytelling,” the implications of the very activity. The story involves a creepy neighbor, presumably a pedophile, and we assume from the narrator’s verbal clues (“I don’t remember much. This is why I am here.”) that the child is in therapy, telling his side of things. Leslie finishes the story with further observation on narrative itself. “It doesn’t matter: tell me a story of what I forgot. That’s what I need to find out—the rest of it.”

“If I fail to catalogue my experience it doesn’t exist,” the narrator of the book’s shortest tale, “Corresponding,” tells us. It’s a story about another strained father-son relationship (or is the offspring a daughter? Hard to tell. “My students used to refer to me as witchy,” the sixty-three-year-old narrator, a poet, tells us, “though it wasn’t meant to be derogatory.”). They never see each other, but they write letters bi-weekly, “like two forlorn relatives from some dusty Victorian novel.”

“A Modern Parable,” as the title suggests, is also a take on “storytelling.” A father favors one son over the other. One becomes a self-confident bully lacking empathy. The other becomes a submissive “wallflower.” When the favored son dies, the father transfers his affections and attention, but the results are mixed, at best. The children are identified as “Son 1” and “Son 2” to drive home the “parable” (“a succinct, didactic story that illustrates a principle,” Wikipedia tells us, citing the biblical story of “The Prodigal Son,” no less, as an example).

Apart from “Baby Carrots,” the only story told from the father’s point of view is “Tanglewood Days,” which features an absent mother (the responsibilities of parenthood are too daunting, and she flees to New Mexico to remove herself from “the shackles of society”). The narrator/father has misgivings about his own parenting (“What kind of father am I?”). After a picture of his half-hearted and self-serving attempts at fatherhood (“I parent by entertainment. I suppose I am not alone in this.”), the story circles back and ends with the event of the son Giles’ birth, where the drama all began. Brenda, the mom, is manifesting her own misgivings. “I look up at her. Her eyes scan the choppy water. And far beyond it.” The end. Or is it the beginning? Or somewhere in between?

Not all of the fathers in The Invisible Hand are feckless dudes. “Rooted” begins: “I’d be lying if I told you my father isn’t a good man. He’s a gem. If you ask me, he’s absolutely perfect.” The trouble is, this winds up intimidating the son, making him feel inadequate. (Imagine being Jakob Dylan having to compete with your Nobel Prizewinning troubadour dad.) “Unless I adopt lepers, I can’t possibly live up to my father’s high moral bearing (so I seem selfish and petty in comparison).” But when a new girlfriend, Jenna, takes a different perspective on the old man, things change…or do they?

The collection ends on a triumphant note. True, Cecilia, the daughter-narrator, infantilized like so many other characters by a domineering, if often remote, father, turns on her dad when he promises to get revenge on a camp counselor who once harassed her. Turns him in, that is. But at the start, Cecilia observes, “As pater familias, he had duties far beyond the purchasing of bacon. Protection and retribution—those were within his purview also.” And Daddy comes through! The story – the collection – ends: “Jubilation, I thought. Jubilation.”

The invisible hand of the narrator guides us through the thorny causes and effects of the father-child paradigm, pretty much leaving us still scratching our heads. The narrative techniques contribute to the puzzlement. But hey, we’ve been dealing with all this since at least Sophocles, at least since Abraham was poised to sacrifice his son Isaac, right? Eat the conundrum.

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