For the same reason I love seeing the insides of other people’s houses, I love B.N. Landry’s story “Free Architecture.” Call me voyeuristic, but I like to see how people arrange their objects. I want to see whether a couple shares the same tube of toothpaste, whether or not someone still has a land-line, what magazines are delivered to their house each week and how and where they stack them. In “Free Architecture” we are allowed into the rooms that contain the lives of John and Laura (John’s apartment, “an important new restaurant,” an art museum), whose indoor universes distort the very objects that they contain. It is only when we get to Laura’s place, where “the land was covered with tall green trees,” that we realize we have been cooped up inside for so long, contained in the walls of a (second? tenth?) date with John and Laura, attempting to translate the language of their objects and the object of their language: are these people in love or what?
But the reason it’s fun to see other people’s stuff is not because you actually want to know more about them, no. Precisely the opposite. You want to think you know. You want to see one little thing – the sock on the floor or the weird floral potholder – and you want to make up the story behind it, you want to imagine it yourself. Landry lets us do this at a micro level, letting his sentences cut before the story is entirely told. “When he looked in the mirror,” Landry writes of John, “he saw not himself but another person, who had made different decisions.” Do we get to find out what these decisions were? No. Never. Instead we are left in a nondescript room with John and his “large stomach,” imagining how the stomach got so large, how the bad decisions were made, why, and for whom. It’s like a song in which an important note is withheld, and in the space where the note should be you fill it in in your head. Those are the best songs, because the space allows for possibility and for invention, and for the meta-voyeur, the wonder at what the author himself imagined in that space.
But in all of Landry’s withholdings, in all his sparse, vague spaces and moments – the “large, white rooms” and the “clean and transparent” cities – there is an immaculate specificity. On the white walls of “Free Architecture” there are hairs stuck in the paint, in its transparent cities there are very definite reflections. The curator – “she wore a suit and new glasses” – is a curator that we all know, despite the fact that she has been so thinly defined. We all know the important restaurant with no customers, its suited, happy waiters. We all know the line “Everything is so fresh!” coming from the pretty mouth of our discomfited date. We understand the particulars of John and Laura’s universe, we have just never seen the particulars architected like this.
Architected, yes, but free: the story moves, or should I say holds itself up, in the manner of its title. It has a foundation and it will not fall, but it is built associatively and sporadically – it has windows in the strangest places, landings in the middle of the stairs, spurts of awkward extra space, hallways that lead to nowhere. John and Laura wear food instead of clothes, oil paintings are served for dinner instead of food, and museum curators are available for quasi-spiritual montages, while lying on the floor. Laura’s bedroom, for crying out loud, is in the middle of the forest! In these amorphous portals lives the magic that drives this short story. Some might call it magical realism, these almost hallucinatory distortions of what we know to be normal, but I’d call it a keen tap into the core of the world in which we actually do live – don’t we all feel like the glass of the coffee table we are laying under is too low sometimes, too low for us to move? And isn’t this noting of the surreal nature of real life at the essence of good fiction?
Of course we can’t ignore the splendid spiral staircase of a conversation at the end of the story, where Laura proclaims that she doesn’t think she could “ever have sex with a man so uncomfortable with spending money.” Money, a very real, very bland subject, is deliberated in the bizarre manner of the rest of the story – it turns into a captor (“Before you were a prisoner of not having money, now you are a prisoner of having money.”) and then shape-shifts into the chicken pox (“…once you get it and then lose it, you will never get it again”). And then, with the same perfect randomness with which we were given Laura’s apples and John’s banana, the narrator himself (the narrator himself!) cuts in to verify the truth of this last statement. And this, my friends, feels like picking up the telephone and hearing someone else’s conversation, and they’re talking about sex or personal embarrassment or cheating on their significant other. Not only the voyeur’s jackpot, but one of those wise moments, where you think, alongside the narrator, Which is true, Which is true.