In Awayland, Ausubel uses impossible worlds and events to show us exactly how things really are.
A dazzling collection of imaginative, devastating short fiction, Ramona Ausubel’s Awayland will appeal to those who appreciate the work of superstar fabulists like Kelly Link, Karen Russell, Haruki Murakami and George Saunders. But while her work shares DNA with those masters, Ausubel carves out a unique corner for herself by channeling the magic of her work almost exclusively towards grief, loneliness and sadness. If Ausubel were a realist, it would be almost too much to bear; however, because she weaves painful subject matter into dreamlike, peculiar stories, the effects of most of her tales are thought-provoking rather than biting.
Awayland’s 11 stories are divided into four geographic groups: “Bay of Hungers,” “The Cape of Persistent Hope,” “The Lonesome Flats” and “The Dream Isles.” These thematic groupings are unnecessary but strangely effective, perhaps because so many of the stories involve far off (or invented) locations and voyages into the unknown. It turns Awayland into a sort of fictional guidebook or atlas, a lost Baedeker leading to cold, mysterious places.
Though many stories involve either personal or geographic questing, the primary messenger of Ausubel’s purpose is the body. Pregnancy pops up frequently, as do limbs and organs. Ausubel uses the body to show her characters’ limits, hopes, assets and flaws, but she also uses bodily absence to convey loss and uncertainty. In one of the collection’s strongest stories, “Fresh Water from the Sea,” a mother is turning into fog and her daughter is unable to make it stop. Another story, “Remedy,” features (spoiler alert) the removal of hands. And the first story in the collection, “You Can Find Love Now” has a cyclops as a protagonist.
Too often, literary fiction with fantastical elements limits itself to exploiting the mundane. The contrast can prove striking, but it’s a cynical approach. Refreshingly, Ausubel doesn’t back away from using her full palette. As previously mentioned, she sets her stories in a variety of locations both real and imagined. Her characters have different racial and national backgrounds, speak different languages, love and desire a wide array of characters and have different hopes and dreams. And it is that final thing that also unites the stories: even though their hopes and dreams might be different, nearly all of Ausubel’s characters want something, and their searching for it makes for dynamic reading.
Some of the pieces from this collection originally appeared in legendary magazines like The New Yorker and Tin House, so the quality of the prose is obviously top notch. But Ausubel also appears resistant to style for style’s sake, and her clean and clear writing allows her brilliant ideas to shine. While her words – particularly her symbolic language – are often exhilarating in their unexpectedness, it’s the layering of the characters and the stories that really elevate the work. Ausubel shows her intelligence and curiosity by basing stories on a variety of myths, legends and cultures, all while keeping the focus firmly on character.
Though she’s published two novels and another collection of short stories, Ramona Ausubel hasn’t gotten the recognition that some of her peers have. Hopefully this will change with Awayland, as Ausubel’s voice manages to be fresh, curious and inventive in a very crowded field. While her work features the fantastical, she takes on very real problems on a global and personal scale. With so much published short fiction featuring white people traversing Brooklyn, reading about characters of all shapes, sizes, colors and beliefs as they travel across the world and beyond is not just exhilarating, it is also necessary. In Awayland, Ausubel uses impossible worlds and events to show us exactly how things really are.