In A Visit to Strangers, Gladys Swan's characters inhabit slightly alien, off-center worlds as they struggle to achieve some sort of permanence or stability. Strangeness of situation, environment, and relationship prevents them from taking refuge in worn-out pieties and false values.
There are no easy solutions. Several stories portray disenchanted people who have failed to commit themselves at key moments and end up abandoning their lives to "the stream . . . in which lost things lie." But in others, direct interaction with strangers offers enlightenment to the characters, who are often strangers to themselves.
Images drawn from the visual arts suggest the inevitable attempt to fix upon some unchanging essence beneath or within the flux of time, a point of solidity upon which the characters seek to secure their identities. Thus Rich in "Lucking Out" struggles to create an art of the contemporary moment that carries something of the amazement he feels when he goes to Italy and finds himself in "the stunning midst" of what the Renaissance had to offer. And a young woman in "Portrait" discovers that she lacked the vision to live out the promise of her youth, captured by a painter in her portrait. It appears that those who can re-create themselves through the imagination in the process of meeting strangeness have the best chance to evolve. In "The Afternoon of the Pterodactyl," a young boy, Robert, preparing for a school report, contemplates the metamorphosis of a lizard to a bird and, in the process, sees how to adapt to the new domestic situation that his mother's boyfriend, Paul, presents.
Memory also figures heavily in the characters' responses to transitory situations. Queenie Ballmer, the old woman in "Falling Leaves," panics at her children's suggestion of a nursing home. Her surroundings hold her in the present: "It would all be gone then--this room that she kept neat as a pin, the house that Wendell had built, the street with Susie's house across from hers. Her whole life would be blown away like so many leaves, and what could she hold onto then?"
Swan communicates a tenuousness about everything that happens between and among her characters. There's a mix of promise and decay, of ennui and the desire for amazement, as they reexamine their lives, reconcile their pasts, or attempt to reinvent themselves.
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Gladys Swan is Professor of English at the University of Missouri-Columbia. She is the author of two novels and three collections of short stories, which include Do You Believe in Cabeza de Vaca?
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