Pewter Rose Press


Ephraim’s Eyes

by Bryan Walpert

The characters in this collection of stories by Bryan Walpert have each had their lives disrupted by personal tragedy. Left to face up to both their responsibility and lack of control over the events, characters weave their own stories and enter into their own worlds as they psychologically resist grief but are driven to explain.

Bryan Walpert’s intriguing, well-crafted stories span the realms of philosophy, astronomy, mycology, super heroes, science fiction and religion. Hopping between America and New Zealand, he explores the human need to rationalize experiences and the way these explanations change over time.

Read an extract here.

Readers' Group Discussion Topics

What people think of Ephraim's Eyes

"I have just ordered this author’s poetry collection on the strength of Ephraim’s Eyes. It is a stunning book, although I am still reeling from the impact of the personal tragedies that befall the characters in each story. Reading it made me mindful of the deep melancholy at the heart of ‘Lear’ or Hopkins’ lines: ‘O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall/Frightful, sheer, no-man fathomed. Hold them cheap/May who ne’er hung there.’

What I like best about this book – heartbreaking though the contents be – is the way story-making structure is turned on its head. There is no linear narrative here, no neat beginning, middle and end. The reader may think he/she is at the start of a tale only to find it is somewhere in the middle or close to the end, juxtaposed and alternating with other elements of time and place. Images shift and alter our focus as well – we are never grounded and secure – a starfish in ’16 Planets’ may evoke a childhood story, nursery wallpaper, a no longer used cot mobile, a stranded predator or a victim of the rising seas.

Ephraim’s Eyes stayed in my thoughts long after I had finished reading its poetic, skilful, shocking and moving pages. I find myself haunted by the questions it asks – questions to which there are a multitude of possible answers but no solutions. Read the story ‘Speckled Hen’ and you’ll see what I mean. We are left, as is the character in ‘Grifola Frondosa’, sitting on a hard floor with no overhead light, alone in the ‘fragile dark.’"

Mandy Pannett

"In this, his first collection of short stories, New Zealand author Bryan Walpert tackles tragedy, how it invades our lives and how we take refuge from it. Whether it's the sudden and violent death of a beloved spouse or the sickening realisation that the promise we were once sure we held has evaporated while we weren't looking,each story revolves around loss and pain. Walpert's deceptively meandering style hides a sharp punch to your gut as he leads us through the manifold ways we meet grief and disappointment. Some hide, some obsess, some flee into fantasy, and others hold on to their sanity with whitened knuckles. It's a slim volume, but Walpert's stories jump through matters as diverse as ecology, mycology, super-hero mythology, the role of the olive through history and Buddhism. It's an impressive collection with stories that resonate with compassion and insight."

Robin Lewis

"Having read and thoroughly enjoyed Bryan Walpert’s first collection of stories, Ephraim’s Eyes, I can only look forward to seeing more of his work. Walpert has a great sense of the absurd, while remaining utterly human and untouched by cynicism. “16 Planets” won the 2007 Royal Society of New Zealand Manhire Prize for Creative Science Writing and “Grifola Frondosa” appeared in XX Eccentric Stories about the Eccentricities of Women (Main Street Rag, 2009).
As an American, now resident in New Zealand, Walpert’s stories take place in both countries: America and New Zealand. His stories are well written, interesting and worth reading. The themes that bind the stories into a cohesive whole are those of characters who have had their lives overturned by personal tragedy. Left to pick up the broken pieces, the characters are resourceful. We enter their experiences as they try to resist the pain that overcomes them before they are able to pick themselves up and carry on with their lives.
Titles, as any short fiction addict knows, are significant. They catch your eye and encourage you to read. The title of the collection is taken from his first story, “Ephraim’s Eyes,” and suggests the enduring quality of eyes and that what we see may not always be the truth. It shows that, like the narrator, Walpert knows how to reveal what is hidden from our eyes. He weaves the story and entwines his reader in his own net of surprises. Occasionally, we appear to overhear a kind of convoluted tale that Walpert’s narrator describes, as he moves from the birth of Ephraim to his death, encompassing several of the events that take place between these two points.
The story of Carol and the mycologist in “Grifola Frondosa” is a more adult-based story. Rather than quoting too much of the actual conversation, Walpert describes the subject matter as it moves the tale, pyramid-like, from Carol’s need to deal with her bedroom closet, through her relationships to the final way she deals with her fate:
When the closet man finished, he helped her to move the bed back into the room, told her to wait a day for the paint in the closet to dry. The electrician would come to connect the closet light on Monday. The closet man left two messages for her on Saturday, but Carol had not yet decided whether to return them.
As the story ends, we feel the stillness, the silence. Walpert’s story may look simple, but it is cleverly and thoughtfully written.
“417 Feet” is a story which shows Walpert to be as visually oriented in his short fiction as he is in his poetry. The story has something to say about the lack of commitment and how disappointing and deceptive appearances can be. How it is
Only this close, with the features pulled apart into their component dots and smudges so that they are unrecognizable, can you really see the picture as an object in itself and can objectively size up its imperfections without getting caught up in the beauty of the woman or the narrative of the marriage proposal.
As an enthusiastic crossword puzzle addict and problem solver, I also enjoyed “Grifola Frondosa” and “Word Problems.” They both show the diverse potential of the use of puzzles and problems in story writing.
Though there are many equally witty and occasionally bewildering stories in the rest of the collection (altogether eleven stories), my favourite is the ironically titled “Speckled Hen.” Here Walpert brings forth his mastery of the short story by putting a great many of his ideas into a minimum of word space. It begins in a typically offhand manner:
Samuel comes to the end of the sidewalk at the corner of the curb. Across the street, he sees a building, a parking lot to the left.
Towards the end of the story, Samuel’s life takes a sudden change:
Becky’s scream – not his name but something more primitive – brought the object to his attention. There was an object in the middle of the street. It was an animal crossing the street. He had to let the car give a bit into gravity, was driving too quickly.
“Man in the Box” is written in the first person forcing us to identify and never letting us off the hook. As the magician searches for answers so the reader must also search: “I know how you think this ends: that me and the day, we disappear.” “Feijoa” deserves a mention as do “Earth-One, Earth-Two” and “16 Planets.”
I enjoyed these stories so much simply because they are so mysterious. Almost every problem the characters face that seems totally beyond solution is tackled and solved. The stories are full of interesting complexities and touch the reader without losing any of their power. Ephraim’s Eyes will not change your life, but it will give you food for thought."

Patricia Prime

"Fantastic insight … and I can honestly say I've never read anything like it!"

Anon

"Bryan Walpert's story, 16 Planets, is a very bleak and disturbing story of a world in which the most innocent and familiar things have become destructive... the Kiwi deck, mum driving her son to his rugby game, returning stranded starfish to the ocean... a world in which the big picture is so dark that there's no longer any consolation in small pleasures. Of the several entries trying to express the uncomfortable mix of personal and political in a time dominated by apprehension about climate change, this one did it best. A great piece of writing, it conveys the despair and confusion of a bloke who's lost his bearings. The author has crafted his story so that it carries a large point about climate change, but at the same time manages to move the reader at an emotional level. That's clever."

Kim Hill

"These stories are extraordinary things. Each one is centred around a single character who grieves for a loss that is usually withheld until the story plays out. Memory and the unravelling of it, and the way people try to make some sense of the apparently senseless by remembering - always a faulty business - is at the core of the book. So too is the questionable power of love to save us.

Author Bryan Walpert is an award-winning US writer who is a NZ citizen and teaches creative writing at Massey University, Palmerston North. As such, that makes him a colleague of mine (I teach at Massey Wellington). His poetry collection Etymology was launched last year and his poem No Metaphor kicked off our Tuesday Poem blog.

As his poetry does so wonderfully, Bryan's stories use language and the prism of science and philosophy to try to rein in and explain the vicissitudes of life and the resulting anguish of the people who suffer at its hands. Bryan has said: 'I think for me, as a writer, the way to the heart is often through the head.' Hence the lack of sentimentality, hence the careful, erudite and skilful writing that gives you deep rivers of emotion but without once leaning in from the important task of rowing the boat to trail its hand in the water.

In discussing No Metaphor on Tuesday Poem, I talked about the interior struggle of the man in the poem to both remember and forget, and the same struggle is to be found in Ephraim's Eyes. The characters' thoughts swirl around philosophy or mushrooms or magic tricks as both a distraction and as a way to explain what has happened to them; and in the same way they also tell stories that they believe to be true and that are sometimes clearly fiction. But Ephraim's Eyes is most emphatically not a bunch of cerebral ramblings. The  muscle of the stories is in the well-wrought complex characters who pitch-perfect voices who live ordinary lives alight with detail (in NZ and the US), and undertake work that is both authentic and fascinating.

Whether it be a man damaged by war who owns a magic shop and finds himself teaching tricks to a needy boy, a man whose job is to check billboards for damage but who is wholly taken up with checking the perceived wreck of his own life, a teenage girl who finds numbers beautiful but is diverted into a destructive sexual relationship, a woman with a secret who needs a new cupboard and gets a mycologist in as a housemate to help pay for it, a girl whose Hawkes Bay olive grower step-father is making her uncomfortable, a man who thinks he's the incarnation of the comic book character Flash.

There is something filmic about the way Bryan evokes the lives of his characters - they are so visual and so intriguing in their visual detail. Driving home last night, I kept looking at billboards thinking of the man who checks them for a job. The end of that particular story literally gave me vertigo. I was up in the air, but suddenly I knew what would happen, and it was like swooping from a great height. Bryan builds the story up to that point so skilfully - with so many interwoven layers of thought and action - that I was both afraid and exultant with the knowledge. Storytelling at its best.

The stories delight, too, with their erudition - this writer's mind is like the beautiful numbers his character in the story 'Word Problems' loves so much, and many times I pondered on the apposite cover of his book: the interlocking Russian dolls which are part of the title story and emblematic of the dense and layered thinking here as well as the stories within stories. Also compelling are the seamless shifts from the deepest darkest recesses of the individual mind to the messy stuff of humanity and then out into the wider universe.

One of the stories, 16 Planets, won the 2007 Royal Society of NZ Manhire Prize for Creative Science Writing. A man, unhinged by a grief he doesn't name until the end, ponders on the terrible ways human beings threaten the planet. The story moves in and out of global warming and oil slicks to the mundane facts of the man's life and his relationship with his wife. The end is unbelievably moving. It caught me at the throat.

The stories suggest that the struggle of the individual doesn't need to be made alone and with limited tools. Magic exists - in life in all its wonderment (from gravity to love), in science and thought and language and story and numbers, in magic tricks and the view from a suburban billboard. Bryan keeps coming back to the power of the imagination which lives unfettered in memory (and story of course) and is a form of magic - not least because it can make things disappear (or can it?)

It is magic which saves some of the characters -  allowing them to let go, to linger, to be bigger than they are. Many of Bryan's characters do not recover, although recovery is a possibility. For some, memory wins out over forgetting, self-forgiveness is too hard, and the magic is just not enough. One man (a writer) is left literally in the dark.

My one small criticism of this astonishing collection is its lack of variety - in terms of both structure and theme. The stories all pivot around a withheld secret which is given to the hungry reader in morsels via memory/backstory until it is finally revealed, and many of the stories are about terrible losses (often death) and the power of grief to destroy. While appreciating the power of stories that link together in a collection, I feel Ephraim's Eyes could have benefited from some variation to give the reader time to take a breath, and to show what else this brilliant writer can do."

Mary McCallum

"An unusual collection of short stories about feelings and perceptions. Most had a little twist or surprise towards the end. Some are rather odd but strangely haunting and sad. Cleverly written!"

Anon