The short story collection is a slippery creature. Like much else in fiction, definitional lines abound in blurred competition, with much angst, it seems, given over to just how linked a series of stories can be said to be. One ironclad truth, however, is that which defines a story collection as such — the ability to offer a multitude of voices and perspectives coalesced around a unifying group of themes, topics, and ideas. This, of course, can be a double-edged sword, offering variation while risking thin characters with whom the reader struggles to connect. Christopher Linforth runs the gamut of these outcomes in his third full-length collection, The Distortions, a book that is at once an admirably honest and questionably composed portrait of the legacy of the Yugoslav wars in the twenty-first century.
While not linked by character — as in, to take a recent example of note, Cara Blue Adams’ You Never Get It Back — Linforth’s work is linked, inventively, through place. The entirety of The Distortions studies the people and places of the former Yugoslavia, principally Croatia, in the approximately present day, with a relentless focus on the realities of war, even two or three decades on. Many short story collections employ the first piece as something of an overture, an opening act to inform one about what is to come, and The Distortions’ eponymous opening is no exception. The first-person narrator — a somewhat driftless thirty-year-old hung up on his nominal girlfriend and devoid of charisma, skill, or grace — has been tasked to leave his Brooklyn apartment and return to Croatia, the country of his birth, on a mission to bring his cantankerous great-uncle back with him. Through this narrative we are given a first look at many of the book’s running themes — the bitterness, even hatred, still felt between Serbs and Croats, the brutality of the landscape and its history, and the struggle of its people to locate and assert their identity even as they fiercely display their national pride.
These are fitting subjects for Linforth to explore, as he is at his best in depicting moments of casual violence that mirror the pervasive all-consuming reality of war. The stories range, temporally, from the time of the Yugoslav Wars themselves to the present, and throughout it is the cold honesty that gives The Distortions its power and poignancy. Linforth is comfortable in a variety of perspectives, with his protagonists including men and women, young and old, rendered in third, first, and even, once, something approaching a second. This approach allows his collection to have the weight and gravitas of one that seems to speak for an entire region about an entire subject. And while such a thing is naturally not possible, The Distortions is a work of readily apparent truth, honesty, and significance.
Consistently, The Distortions manages to neatly blend the everyday violence of life with quotidian concerns and affairs. In “Darkroom,” our camera-laden heroine Ana confronts a woman on the street in what is perhaps Linforth’s most effective scene of the collection:
Ana strikes the woman in the bridge of her nose. Instantly blood ribbons over her lips, the top of her chin. Somehow the cigarette hangs at the corner of her mouth. Ana slides a hand under her winter coat and presses the shutter release. The woman draws the bloodied cigarette from her lips and holds it before her. She steps back and flees toward the train station.
Moments such as this one allow the book to effectively illustrate the savagery that can seep into a community and country in the aftermath of a conflict as terrorizing and fundamental as the Yugoslav Wars. And while this element is aided by the range of characters who serve as protagonists across these stories, one cannot help but to be somewhat disappointed by the overall lack of risk-taking on the sentence level to be found at any point in Distortions. Linforth, for all his stark, crystalline honesty and willingness to explore the human realities of the postwar years in the former Yugoslavia through a myriad of voices, never changes speed in his use of point-of-view or technique. It is a decision made all the stranger by the fact that Linforth populates his collection with diverse characters all struggling in some way or another with generational trauma and the legacy of war — prime topics for consciousnesses-forward writing. But we are never given direct access to the minds of our heroes and heroines, instead relying on neat, orderly, often rather titled summaries of emotions, thoughts, and memories in a way that is somewhat discordant with the overall theme and feel of the book.
For the reader unconcerned with the goings-on in the slippery underworld of the sentence, however, The Distortions will prove to be a quite readable study of a region recovering from historic violence. Through his clear descriptions and straightforward ethos, Linforth paints Croatia and, to a lesser extent, Serbia and Bosnia in full relief and stark light. By refusing to shy away from the reality of war and what it can do to the human condition, Linforth does right by his serious and momentous subject.
By Christopher Linforth
Published March 1, 2022