Review: The Law of Strings, by Steven Gillis

As I am an idiot, it’s unsurprising that I was not the speaker at my college graduation. I was nominated but ended up being runner-up, blew it in the final interview stages when I was asked what I learned from my non-liberal arts classes—math and science, specifically—and replied, “I learned how to write about torture.”

I, of course, began to backpedal and went on and on about how I learned to find beauty in the natural order of things, the joy of systemic wonder. This was true, though plainly obvious that I hadn’t considered it until I said it at that very moment.

I also made a passing reference to cocaine and got into a minor argument with one of the deans over the importance of the bassist in a band.

They went with a cute ponytailed girl who ran track and would no doubt make no mention of torture, could probably respect a pocketed groove.

Aside from the things I already mentioned about science, the truth about it is that I don’t understand it. What The Law of Strings does is root itself successfully in theories I can’t comprehend and names I only vaguely remember—Wheeler, Heisenberg, Whitten—and expose the pieces that run parallel with narrative.

Everyone is seeking craft, the universe included. Gillis moves beyond shop talk. Science, other than being its own story, is important only in relation to the story being told.

The stories themselves are pleasantly simple. The Law of Strings is someone actually taking the advice of putting interesting people in interesting situations and letting them unfold themselves by themselves. Gillis as a writer is absent in the most wonderful of ways. His craft is invisible, pure in its modesty. From “The Society for the Protection of Animals:”

Uniss had a plan. The situation was dire. No one refuted this, though we knew at first only what Uniss told us.

In her cage, on the floor of our apartment, Uniss did her best to turn. She said it was important to feel as they did, to better understand. I questioned the necessity, wondered, “If we’re supposed to be sympathetic, shouldn’t we be motivated more by instinct?”

Uniss told me to “Think about what you’re saying. How can you understand what you haven’t experienced?”

I could have argued the point, said many things were intuitive, like hunger and love and the want to survive, that understanding them was overkill, but I knew what Uniss would say. She had a way of moving inside her cage, naked and on all fours, up on her toes and fingers, her spine arched as she had learned to do, leaving room so when invited I could scoot flat on my back and lay beneath her, staring directly at whatever she chose to offer.

Opening story “What We Wonder When Not Sure” is deceptive, mired in a single overbearing abstraction—the we and the they and the what that propel the story are mysteriously, purposely undefined. Still the ending is oddly satisfying, revealing a different science right away, proving that sometimes we skirt the reasons and ask question after question regardless.

When the narrator mentions “…breasts a different size than my wife…” there begins to emerge already a theme of difference instead of improvement. Science knows only lateral moves.

The characters in the book confront dark matter, gravity, and strings both literal (that of a bow, for example) and figurative (those that connect the characters). More importantly, there are people dealing with the energy of love as it moves against the effort of love. This is endothermic and exothermic, the moon and the tide, humidifier and dehumidifier.

I don’t know. Maybe it’s not. These things are over my head.

Still, I know that in the title story, the narrator states that “All people wanted…was to feel the connection.” These are the threads of that universal narrative that Gillis ties together so often in a final breathless moment. From “As Dudee Fell:”

Dudee, after breakfast, parked across the street. An hour before work, he wanted to go upstairs again and get back in bed, recover the time they lost, but there was Whare’s truck still in the drive. He stopped and stood and stared up at the house. Mirina on the far side of the car, saw Dudee in the street, knew what he was thinking, and laughing, started coming around just as the arrow hit the ramp in front of the stairs at such an angle that it skipped and flew up again. The bow in Whare’s huge hand gripped all wrong. Hardly Cupid. “Fuck, luck, shit!” He thought again of Eros and the possibilities blows, love not given to the freak but denied as Eros fell for Psyche, double-dealing his mother while begging his father, Zeus, to let love lie exclusively with beauty. “Hell, hell, hell!” Whare on the stairs, hurrying down, dropping the bow and heading for his truck, lifted Dudee and laid him on the bed. Mirina against the wind in back, held firm the shaft of the arrow.

Starting with “Exhibitions” halfway through the collection, the idea of science and life, of theory-based living, becomes less overt. The references to the actual study of science and the quoted knowledge of scientists themselves give way to a more subtle theory of strings.

In “Hurbestone the Magnificent,” Hurbestone says, “The truth about magic is there is no truth. Everything is faith.” This is to say that there is magic, just no truth. Lies and truth. Faith and science. More magic, more strings. The relationship he forms with Keena, a student of Hurbestone who ends up moving in with him, and its questionable status throughout the entire duration of the story is its own sleight of hand, its own misdirection. Of course this is how it must work for Hurbestone, the consummate magician.

In desire, we recognize our own favorable traits. The truth about magic may have nothing to do with truth, but it has everything to do with love.

In this second half, we see characters weigh calculated depth against a similar spontaneous surface, consider how simple things can rival deeper planned things if they are quick and pure. Race, trust, and family are touched on at different times, making a formidable replacement for science.

Gillis leans into the poetic, pulling one thing and watching another move—strings, always. There is duplicity and actuality and the brilliance of the arrangement of the book is that this is all right, this is the way that science becomes the true living God.

Or, stated much more simply in “Exhibitions,” All things come from something else.

The Law of Strings, by Steven Gillis. Kensington, Maryland: Atticus Books, 2012. 182 pages. $14.95, paper.

Ryan Werner is a janitor in the Midwest. He is the author of the short-short story collection Shake Away These Constant Days (Jersey Devil Press, 2012). He runs the small chapbook press Passenger Side Books and has a website here.

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