Darker With the Lights On
by David Hayden (2017)
Transit Books (2018)
200 pp

While I do not know David Hayden personally, he is and has been for years an online friend. One time he even picked up a rare book in London and sent it my way. If he still has my address, I need to make sure I speak carefully here. Just kidding! I’ve admired him for a long time, and I was very excited to see his debut collection of short stories published last year by the great independent press Little Island Books. In a month, it will be published in the United States by the new and already esteemed by me press Transit Books.

I was excited for Hayden, yes, but also a bit worried that I might not enjoy the collection. Again, we don’t know each other personally, but I’m used to being able to share my thoughts on a book without worrying how the author might feel, and here I was worried. Well, not only did I love this collection of short stories, I’ve come to consider Hayden a genius of the short story, the paragraph, and the sentence. These are beautiful, precisely written stories that approach modern life from a unique and entirely appropriate perspective. And they contain some of the best sentences and paragraphs I’ve read in years. Yes, now I’m worried Hayden might think I’m about to turn into some importunate fanboy. Not to worry if you read this, though, sir: I can keep my appreciation and admiration at an appropriate level. And I do not believe I ever had your address.

Readers, if you haven’t had the opportunity to dig into any of these stories, allow me to introduce you to this strange and disorienting collection about a bewildering day-to-day existence among signs of impermanence. Its twenty stories are a wonderful mix of modernist crises of identity and contemporary malaise.

The first story, “Egress,” captured my attention right away.

Many years have passed since I stepped off the ledge.

I cleared my desk, and all that I wanted to keep was saved on a memory stick placed in my top pocket. Everything else — I deleted. I found a window that I could cut and cut again to make an opening through which I could step out onto a narrow ledge, and as I moved from there into the air I felt relief, a loss of weight. I began to observe the glittering skin of stone, the terracotta panels, smooth and grooved; the sheets of clean glass. My eye and mind moved with delight from the detail to the great mass of the building and back again. I felt joy to be outside forever.

I expected to be cold but the air was mild, the speed delicious, the freshness vast and edible. I remember looking up briefly to see my fellow directors staring with alarm through the boardroom window. All except Andrew who pinched his tie, smiled and waved.

As the man continues to fall, things change around him, the seasons come and go. It’s like “The Swimmer,” only darker, if you can believe it, and at the same time more hopeful, somewhat liberating. Perhaps we feel a bit like Andrew — we wave at someone who has gotten away, and not, it would seem, to death, but to a complete metaphysical escape from the doldrums of work.

Not that all of the stories express an experience that brings “fresh delight.” In the next story, “The Auctioneer,” a man expresses hope, but it’s more difficult to read it as anything truly positive:

Everything is still, or maybe vibrating only a little. The moment is better than bearable and the sour odor of the dusty night suggest the decay of the world has stopped at last.

Phrases like “better than bearable,” perfect encapsulations of things I feel but cannot articulate, pepper the entire collection. These extend to entire paragraphs that open up the world a bit:

Books might well be the worst of the household ephemera: dry husks that, slab by slab, rise in great, whispering walls, entombing their owners. The essence of the book is another thing entirely, not the words as such but what lies beneath the words, that is what can set you free. That is why libraries are so important, as long as one does not linger too long in them.

Hayden digs deeply into the multitude of quietly terrifying moments in a day. Some moments are more terrifying than others, such as a patricide in “Leckerdam of the Golden Hand,” told from the perspective of the murdered father: “My name is Leckerdam and this is how my children killed me.” Leckerdam has it coming, we see, in the even more terrifying (but still deadpan yet poetic voice of Leckerdam):

On Liotta’s sixth birthday I tired of her as she was — happy, celebrating, being celebrated — and with my golden hand I took a hot coal from the fire and pressed it to her forehead. She screamed, of course; she has always had a beautiful voice. The scorch was deep and left a wound that never quite healed, that wept continually — unlike her eyes, which never shed another tear.

These stories are dreams and nightmares, explorations of inner terrors, the things we feel when we’re drifting to sleep, losing control. I recently did a podcast on the stories of Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, which call to mind Kafka, Beckett, and Borges — this is where Hayden is in Darker With the Lights On, and it’s fantastic, weird, too real.

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