If Mieke's Ladder, A.R. Lamb's new collection of short fiction suffers for anything, it's for that old sad-bastard state of short fiction in today's literature market.
It's strange that short story collections are no longer in demand. Fewer and fewer people are interested in reading these days. Most of us already know that. The majority of those who do stick around want the same from their flickers of interest in reading that they want in their summer movies. They want something quick to get into and simple to absorb. Something that's easily digestible and easy to forget when it drops off the bestseller list and no one wants to talk about it anymore. You would think readers like this, who have always been around in some form or another, would be eager to devour a book of short fiction. A few pages to a story, a piece of writing that can be knocked off in a day and give the reader a feeling of accomplishment.
Fifty years ago, there was a lot of room to make a living writing short stories. Dozens of popular magazines existed on the market. Their sole purpose was to provide people access to the leading short stories of the moment. The really good pieces were the ones capable of satisfying both the casual reader who just wanted a moment of entertainment and the lifelong student looking for a shot of humanity and truth against the back drop of a well-written story. The days of books and stories like that coming into the mainstream are long gone. It's an exceptionally rare thing now to go into Barnes and Noble and find an up-and-coming author's best collection of short pieces. This is the disadvantage any short story collection faces now.
And it's the situation facing Mieke's Ladder. Twelve stories, many of which have been previously published in some of the Internet's most prestigious literary 'zines, can be found here. They're short pieces, too. The whole thing clocks in at just over a hundred pages. It's the kind of book you could read in an afternoon, though you might be left thinking about the book's psychological and spiritual intentions long after you've finished reading. Lamb has every intention of giving us some great short stories, but he also wants us to pay attention to some bigger issues. He wants us to be aware of the idea that there is much more going on in this world than what we are capable of seeing and feeling. You could also say he wants us to realize how in danger we are of losing that much larger universe. One that gets smaller for every day that we get older, wearier and more wrapped up in things we perceive to be more important.
Even then, he remains smart enough to write fiction and put the finished product into a collection with the casual reader still in mind. Several common themes can be found throughout the twelve stories. Some of those themes aren't going to ask a lot of people. That's what's hopefully going to draw in the kind of person who gets an ice cream headache at even the prospect of anything deeper than Dean Koontz. Taken at face value, in tales like "Everyone Knew Him" or "Two Perch," none of these stories are difficult to read. They can be enjoyed as quick jolts of odd, often forgotten misfits surviving (or not) amidst even stranger circumstances. The sharp, vivid prose can be read simply as beautifully weird snapshots of Lamb's remarkable imagination. Made even better by his minimalist sense of humor, his constantly engaging, wry dialog and the way he still maintains a talent for making his characters and their surroundings firmly hold on to a sense of reality through it all.
But if you're willing to go deeper than face value, Mieke's Ladder stands to show you so much more. Lamb does fine justice to the art of brilliant storytelling. If you go no further than knowing that, you still walk away with a wealth of incredible material. At the same time though, Lamb clearly hopes to have as many people as possible stick around for the rest of his literary magic act. It brings about another common theme of the stories. Only with this theme, you have to be willing to look further past the basic makeup of wonderful tales like "Crossbow" or "Tara." You have to take your first impressions of each story's protagonist and use it as a jumping point to the spiritual and psychological backgrounds of these characters and their places. Many of the stories' featured players share similar traits and problems. It doesn't make them any less unique. It does suggest some of the interests Lamb has in people and the worlds they make, either with inaction or too much action altogether. The confused heap of a man in "Tubetime," suddenly finding himself single and forced back out into the world, would be a good example from that first group. The world-weary housewife from "Sub-Aqua" being pushed to the edge of a nervous breakdown from deciding long ago to live each day exactly the same would be another.
Mieke's Ladder has just as many over-active protagonists. You can find the endlessly dishonest builder hitting a long-overdue crossroad in the book's title story. There's also the stubbornly literal psychotherapist being forced to reevaluate his entire comprehension of the universe in "The Happy Medium." Whichever group they belong to, the one constant in all of them remains the same. You're introduced to a character who, for whatever reason, has reached a very critical and in most cases desperate point in their lives. A place unifying them in that each example has come about because of something each of them did or didn't do with their time in the world. They are emotionally exhausted cripples caught between Never-Never Land and a Void constantly taking larger and larger bites from their heels. These are outcasts who are capable of being lonely in even the most crowded city streets. The time has come for each of them to make a decision. They can either break free and rise to their own idea of Heaven or stick to the cruel familiarity of the ground and die without ever knowing true happiness.
Some of them make it. Others are not quite as lucky or just aren't willing to let go of whatever it is that's slowly eating away at them. All of their stories equal out to the idea of either changing or dying for not having ever tried. Through it all, Lamb displays an incredible insight into the emotional, spiritual and psychological aspects regarding the agony of transformation leading to something far greater, far more satisfying than anything the poor bastards of his stories have known before.
That's what makes them as real as anyone we actually know. For all the weirdness of Mieke's Ladder, there remains an effort to keep the characters human. They are real people and not just performers in an abstract work of art. Lamb's own affection for these walking wounded lends further weight to the time he spends show psychological processes, rather than before and after pictures. It's within this we find some of the book's most stunning imagery and revelations. The inner workings of an individual undergoing a powerful change is often a wide playground of ideas and images. When this potential is used by the mind of a talented writer, it can be a hell of an impressive journey.
So few writers have ever done so much in such a small collection of work. Opening your mind up to Lamb's personal philosophy being blended in immaculate form with straightforward, excellent short stories almost feels like being given the same opportunity to break through to the rest of the world that he gives to his own characters. It doesn't hurt to be reminded once in a while that we ourselves are capable of this. The end result is a gift not diminished by the book's small stature.
A lot goes on inside and somehow around this book. There's no question it will keep you busy long after you've actually finished. As firmly as Mieke's Ladder holds onto its ideas, it still leaves enough open in all twelve stories to invite the thoughts of the reader. Not just in the stories themselves, but in how you choose to interpret their deeper motives. Mieke's Ladder has a point to make, of course, but Lamb isn't nearly arrogant enough to do all your thinking for you.
Literature often feels like a dying art form. Short stories, even more so. For the believers who are still standing, it can be a relief to find writers still doing something significant. A.R. Lamb is doing something quite significant from his own small corner of the world. He has covered all his bases with Mieke's Ladder and succeeded in meeting that clichéd intention of offering something worthwhile for everyone.
Whether he meant to or not, he's made it clear that the short story has a lot more life left in it. Provided, of course, he and others like him are willing to keep working. Here's to hoping they do. Here's to hoping a few million people get in on it as well. People always have a great affection for being able to brag about being in on something big from the very beginning. They could do far worse than being a part of Mieke's Ladder and other collections doing some of the best work in their field in quite some time. No matter what any of the drunk pessimists might say, there's still plenty of time for everyone else to get the hint.