By Daniel Orozco
One of the most resonant lines in modern literature comes from E. M. Forster’s 1910 novel Howards End (where it does double duty as the epigraph): “Only connect . . .” In Forster’s book these words refer to connecting prose with passion, the head and the heart, and bringing together different social classes. But in the years since they have gone on to enjoy a long and varied afterlife, and it’s no surprise at all to see them lending a title to one of the stories in this debut collection of contemporary tales of alienation from Daniel Orozco.
Orozco, who currently teaches creative writing at the University of Idaho, is a well-known name in short story circles and his work has been widely anthologized. This makes it all the more remarkable to find out that Orientation is his first book. And while he acknowledges it was “a long time coming” (the title story was first published over fifteen years ago), it’s also a slim volume. Orozco’s reputation rests on a very small, very original body of work.
The stories, with one exception (“Somoza’s Dream”, a brilliant recreation of the assassination of Anastasio Somoza) have as their subject matter the everyday world of work. The characters we meet are temps, bridge painters, warehouse staff, secretaries, and cops. The first story, “Orientation,” takes the form of an introduction to an office full of eccentric cubicle dwellers. The theme of connection here provides the story with its structure, being a monologue-as-flowchart of the web of relationships among co-workers (“Amanda Pierce, who tolerates Russell Nash, is in love with Albert Bosch, whose office is over there”).
Work is an environment where personal relationships are both taboo and inevitable. Stuck performing modern, dehumanized functions, Orozco’s characters ache for human contact. In “Only Connect” the connection is finally made through holding hands. An adulterous affair between police officers in the story “Officers Weep” climaxes with a similar act: “His hands reach for hers, their fingers clasp and enmesh.” And in “Temporary Stories” the titular temp, Clarissa Snow, has a full-body epiphany, “swaying blissfully against her fellow commuters” on the bus to and from work:
Riding the bus, she felt immersed in the world, felt its press and push and jostle, its gentle and yielding weight sliding past and around and against her body. For this is what she loved most of all – the simple touch of another, random and intimate and essential.
There’s nothing indecent about all of this fraternization and frotteurism; in fact, quite the opposite. Such contact represents feelings that are life-affirming – gestures of tolerance, care, and acceptance in a mechanical, bureaucratized world. Cubicles, routine, and corporate hierarchies divide us, but the essential human impulse is to only connect.
Review first published in the Toronto Star July 24, 2011.