‘A highly accomplished debut’ – The Theory of Light and Matter by Andrew Porter

Andrew Porter is a bright young thing to watch; a graduate of the University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop (their alumni list is like a who’s who of literary big-shots and prize-winners), his first collection, The Theory of Light and Matter, comprises ten beautiful, deft, touching and memorable stories that’ll have you weeping into your cornflakes and nodding your head in recognition.  Originally published by a small university press, it’s since been picked up by Vintage and Jonathan Cape, and I bet we’ll see much more from Porter as the years pass.

I read this in two very speedy, greedy sittings (interrupted only by sleep, that dastardly enemy of captivating prose).  The stories are all told in the first person, all set in American towns and suburbs, and every one but the title tale features a male narrator.  They’re stories about memory and families, and relationships and friendships – heartache and nostalgia, frustration, sadness and desires.  Their disillusioned and saddened stars are in their teens, twenties or  thirties – to be expected, perhaps, from an author that was only thirty-five when the book was published – but don’t let this mislead you; these characters are each carrying such a weight of sadness and experience that I can’t imagine any reader failing to empathise with them.  And yet they’re resilient – survivors who’ve lived to tell the tale – and so, despite the tragedies that stack up as you keep turning the pages, they’re not hopeless stories.  There’s enough humour and wry observations in here to make you smile as well as sigh while you read on – and read on, you will.  Porter’s prose is understated and conversational, with a masterful fluidity that made very emotion stand out and every word count.

I’d be hard-pressed to pick a favourite out of such an impressive collection, but here’s a few.  The title story is about a physics student who forms a relationship with one of her older professors;  in love, but tethered from acting on it by the mores of their rather conventional community, she goes on to marry her medical-student boyfriend, but isn’t able to forget her greater, earlier passion.  This is the only story with a female narrator, and Porter handles the witch with aplomb – the complexity of emotions in this set-up is muted and poignant – it’s a beautiful portrayal of a woman settling for the second-best future and trying to suppress her real feelings.  (And ripe for a melodramatic movie adaptation, with tender shots of autumnal leaves and lingering glances, and a wan bespectacled beauty in the lead role… you read it here first.)   The first story, ‘Hole’, is a fantastic opener, with the narrator remembering how his best childhood friend fell to his death in front of him; ‘Departure’ is about the disintegration of a local Amish community; and ‘Storms’ is about how people represent themselves and their relationships to their families, as the daughter lies about  breaking up with her fianc・ and the step-father struggles to communicate with his wife and her children.

Any Cop?:  This is a highly accomplished debut from a writer you’re going to want to keep an eye on;  they’re accessible and resonant stories that’ll stay with you.  Read it, read it, read it – and wait excitedly for what’s coming next.

Valerie O’Riordan

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