I should read fiction only at night, before bed. I’ve found that reading mid-day, before meeting with a friend or answering to this or that responsibility, can take a small toll on my mental health. It is sometimes a challenge, navigating between my world and the worlds I visit in print. A good story, one rich in detail or suspense or heart, will, upon completion, invariably stay near the fore of my consciousness, distracting me from, among many other things, finding solutions to my real-life problems. I dedicate myself to the stories that I believe deserve my dedication. This means mulling over a story’s meaning(s), looking for consolation or comfort in an author’s words. It can feel like a job in the sense that, when I read a particularly moving or revelatory or flat-out beautiful story, I feel as though I’m giving myself up to something greater than myself. The mission of the job of reading, I think, has something to do with this cosmic awareness of one’s smallness. (Notice how Orientation’s cover features not one but a flurry of disembodied, multi-hued heads, each dependent on one another for support.) The self needs constant reminding that love, happiness, and security can’t ever really exist without the help of others: co-workers. The daily grind a kind of means to whichever ends one has set up for oneself: fulfillment, contentment, peace.
Daniel Orozco’s long-awaited story collection, Orientation, begins with its title story, which saw publication in 1995. So Orozco’s book, from its outset, demands some workerly dedication. Using second-person narration, Orozco walks the reader through their first day of employment at a comically transparent workplace, rich with life. “Rich with life” accurately describes all of the stories contained in Orientation. Each of Orozco’s characters is made real by his vivid and sharp characterizations, and they’re each burdened with pain, prettified by his prose.
The story collection is made up of moments, one after another, of startlingly poignant yet ostensibly ordinary interactions. A woman shamefully, self-consciously buys cookies for herself and only herself. Bridge painters change their attitudes toward the youngest crew member after he experiences trauma on the job, their every word or gesture toward him charged with new meaning, and profound sorrow for the kid’s lost innocence. In “Officers Weep,” Orozco shows his playful side, using a police blotter template to illustrate the private thoughts and feelings of his characters:
5600 Block, Fairvale Avenue. Traffic stop. Illegal U-turn. Officer [Shield #325] approaches vehicle. […] Officer tucks errant lock behind ear, secures it in place with a readjustment of duty cap […] Officer [Shield #647] observes intimate sequence from his position behind wheel of Patrol Unit. Officer enthralled. Officer ascertains the potential encroachment of love, maybe, into his cautious and lonely life. Officer swallows hard.
The collection’s final story (though it feels wrong calling it a single story), “Shakers,” is a devastating depiction and deconstruction of the effects wrought by a (minor) California earthquake.
Orozco took many years to complete Orientation. Its slimness (160 pages) would be dispiriting, if they weren’t 160 carefully-constructed pages that bear all but a physical mark of the love and hard work and serious thought that Orozco put into each and every line. They are the best 160 pages they could be. Time has been a friend to Orozco, who seems to have used the years of pre-publication to cut away the fat that fills too many story collections today. The stories where he goes out on a narrative limb (such as the formally daring “Officers Weep,” or “Somoza’s Dream,” a fictionalized [to what degree, one is unsure] account of the assassination of former Nicaraguan President “Tachito” Somoza Debayle) don’t fall under their own experimental weight. They are skillfully contained and whole. Orozco takes risks, and spins stories in directions new to me, as I’m confident they’ll be new to many readers. What makes Orientation so significant is that the forms Orozco’s stories take, while fresh and newly-imagined by its author, feel somehow already perfected. The nine stories in Orientation are stunning models of how to excitingly breathe life into a process (the telling of stories) that too often feels tapped of new possibilities. For this reason, Orientation is one of the most inspiring books I’ve read this year.