Conflicting Narratives and Shifting Identities in Laura van den Berg’s Latest Fiction

Since briefly working with Laura van den Berg on a story of my own years ago, I have admired her flourishing career and devoured her work as it is released. She is one of those writers whose work makes me feel that I become a better writer myself through mere exposure. And I must admit, to my literary jealousy, I envy her prolific output and expertly crafted prose, which lifts off the page and haunts me for weeks. But I also take great pleasure in untangling the work through close reading and seeing her books reach new readers.

Van den Berg is known for detail-driven narratives in which the known world and magic happenings interweave. Her previous novel, The Third Hotel, set in a zombie film festival in Cuba, is rife with hauntings and omens. The exotic locale serves as a disorienting labyrinth for a woman who bumps into her supposedly dead husband. NPR declared that the novel would “get under your skin.” The Third Hotel earned van den Berg comparisons to Borges, Kafka, and Murakami by The Washington Post.

In I Hold A Wolf by the Ears, her new collection of short stories from Farrar, Straus & Giroux, supernatural events and the intrusion of paranoia are anchored in her sparse, expressive style. The women in these stories grapple with layers of identity, embedded in untold narratives and the grim prospect of the “big alone.” We are introduced to them as their worlds begin to lurch beyond their control and their narrative identities begin to crumble. They face metaphysical horror, see ghosts, sneak around at night taking pictures, or, in one case, drive right up to the crater of a volcano. Couples struggle against the context of a global social reckoning, revealing themselves under the pressure.

The author often includes nods to her own profession, from the vocation of her protagonists to metafictional techniques. One of the central questions of this collection ponders: what is the story we wish we could tell about ourselves? In the first story, “Last Night,” the narrator expresses a wish: “I want to tell you about the night I got hit by a train and died.” The pause in the following line break lets us wonder if this is going to be a from-the-grave narrator in a story told in reverse. Instead, the next line issues a denial: “The thing is––it never happened.” We wonder, why is it so imperative that this story be told, if it did not actually happen? In fact, this story opening within a story sets the stage for a collection wherein narratives are damaging, liberating, and shift or collapse under pressure.

The epigraph of I Hold A Wolf is a quote from Clarice Lispector, the Brazilian writer-and-sorceress: “Do you ever suddenly find it strange to be yourself?” The strangeness of self is a focal point for many of the stories, as characters challenge their self-narratives or adopt new identities. According to a July 10, 2015 article in The New Yorker, “The True Glamour of Clarice Lispector,” by Benjamin Moser, Lispector did not enjoy comparisons to Virginia Woolf, citing Woolf’s suicide. Lispector is quoted as stating, “The terrible duty is to go to the end.” Modern psychology has amended the idea that suicide is the result of moral failing, but the quote illuminates a strong theme across van den Berg’s work. If we treat the idea of death-of-self less literally, along Jungian lines of “ego death,” this describes the parts of ourselves we wish we could “kill off.” To take a line from Find Me, “the parts of yourself you want to kill and bury deep.”

Even if we could do such a thing, are those parts, those unflattering narratives of ourselves, ever truly gone, or do they implicate new ones?

In some cases, conflicting narratives threaten characters’ sense of reality and morality. In “Karolina,” a woman keeps running into her ex-sister-in-law and is forced to reconcile her knowledge of her brother with Karolina’s version of him as an abuser and psychopath. In “Cult of Mary,” an Italian tour guide reminds a group of international travelers that “history is not only about what happened, but also about what those in power want you to believe happened.” When a man in the tour group makes a joke about the prostitutes lining the streets, the guide reminds him that they are survivors and deserving of respect.

In a few stories, narratives are dependent upon the eye and are therefore a potential point of conflict. Van den Berg seems fascinated by photography, specifically the way the story of a photograph forms a version of reality and how that version of reality can be corrupted.

In “The Pitch,” an old photograph from a husband’s childhood becomes the focus of an argument. While his wife sees a boy climbing a tree, the husband insists it is nothing but a mangled vine wrapping around the tree. “That may have been the story he was intent on telling himself, but I wasn’t about to let it infect me; I didn’t yet understand that refusing one kind of narrative could activate another.” Secrets and gaslighting abound in this story named for the “pitch dark” woods where her husband used to play as a boy. After the wife disagrees with his version of reality, he becomes hostile and accusatory. “I was starting to feel like I was in need of reinforcements.” She paints anthropomorphized animals on the walls of their living room and hides them behind the furniture to manifest protective elements. 

In a particularly chilling story, “Lizards,” a wife asks her husband an important and impossible question about his past dealings with women. They have been glued to their TVs as a powerful judge is at the center of multiple allegations of sexual assault. We hear both husband and wife’s thoughts alternately, as she reacts to the news and he reacts to her. Referring to the judge: “Every time she sees his face she feels so angry she’s surprised surfaces don’t ignite when she touches them.” She still isn’t used to the lizards that scamper across the walls of their Florida home, and keeps dropping wine glasses. This is the only reason for her edginess, she rationalizes, but clearly there is more under the surface. “They don’t even have kids yet and she is already so tired, which worries her, though her husband blames the era that they live in––so divisive, so exhausting, who could keep up––and says they should spend less time watching the news.”

The husband has been forced to take a job through a task app, in which he waits in lines for other people. He is good at it. What he’s not so good at is dealing with his wife when she’s like this; “Ever since the allegations were made against the judge, the hostile nature of the news has started to leak into his wife; she’s like a boxer these days, always out there with that jab.” I appreciated this simile, possibly an autobiographical reference to the author, a self-described “baby boxer” herself; but it is also the perfect visceral description of the effects of triggering news, particularly to survivors of assault. Furthermore, for the thought to be narrated not in the wife’s voice but in the husband’s indicates his perception of her as a threat.

One day, a neighbor offers him a solution: a special kind of sparkling water, like an off brand La Croix, for when his wife gets to be “a little too much.” The use of the third person omniscient in this context is like the notes of a couples’ counselor, wherein all viewpoints are valid. This faithful reporting also increases the dramatic irony, as the reader is implicated in the knowledge of the true nature of the drink, as well as the wife’s sense of relief from her own anger.

In addition to her notoriously crisp, heavy-hitting sentences, van den Berg leaves space for the absurd and the comical. One of my favorite parts of her stories are the unusual jobs of the characters. Who could forget the woman in What the World Will Look Like who is a professional Big Foot impersonator, or the mother-daughter team of seductive magicians who fleece their audience members? In Wolf, the characters’ strange jobs include an upstairs neighbor who answers a hotline for people who are turned on by the sound of crying, and a woman who assumes the identity of clients’ deceased wives, calling herself a “grief freelancer,” a.k.a. “Your Second Wife.”

I Hold A Wolf by the Ears is just the latest example of the way in which van den Berg demonstrates that she is a master of her craft. Her opening lines are beguiling and irresistible, and the endings, while not necessarily happily-ever-afters, land with resounding portent. She is a sentence-level writer with a style truly her own, characterized by lean, yet muscular sentences and expert pace control. With commentary on the dehumanizing gig economy, the effects of the #MeToo news cycle on couples, and the hallucinatory effects of grief, the reader feels embedded and directly involved in the uncanny realms in which these characters live.



Juliana Converse’s writing has appeared or will be published in Heavy Feather Review, Tupelo Quarterly, The Compulsive Reader, Technoculture, Witch Craft Magazine, and BlazeVOX. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from New York University, and lives in Baltimore City, Maryland.