Michigan Books Project–February

Michigan Books Project–February
Lystra
Photo by Aram Mrjoian

Featured Literature: Something that Feels like Truth, stories by Donald Lystra

Personal Favorites: Treasure Hunt, The Five O’clock Train, Marseille

Donald Lystra’s collection of short stories has several distinct midwestern characteristics: attention to natural setting, consistent dialogue that feels crisp and sparse, and constant attention given to gain and loss. These aspects might seem a bit broad to be designated to a specific region, but the way in which they are utilized makes it easy to sense Lystra’s deft understanding of the vast landscape that makes up our state and the surrounding area.

In the majority of these stories, Lystra immediately creates a mis-en-scene that is distinct to one location, such as farmland, cityscape, suburbs, or metropolis, but it doesn’t stop after this designation is made. He goes deeper in making these locations entirely recognizable. The meticulous details that inherently separate these locations are not only noted, but, moreover, examined, and with clean prose Lystra makes each setting individual. (The word unique also would have worked here, but felt hackneyed). If, as readers, we are placed in the rural Michigan countryside, there are innumerable indicators that allow us to feel it tacitly, rather than simply be told what we’re supposed to be imagining. This is one of the reasons I personally favor the story Marseille, because we are privileged to experience the sensation of both knowing a place and not knowing it at all, being in one landscape while dreaming of another.

Secondly, Lystra’s dialogue (and perhaps this is due to the fact that he is an engineer) feels almost mathematical. Each word of dialogue is chosen carefully, and there is as much to glean from that which is unsaid as that that is blatantly written. (Imagine solving a geometry proof). There is a beauty in the precision of the dialogue, and the honest intonation and cadence of various characters is almost frightening. (And thereby more believable)

Furthermore, the focus these stories give to simple gain and loss, the kind of cosmic balance we harbor over a lifetime, somehow is ineffably correlated to Michigan. Sometimes, these stories convey a microcosmic gain as it translated to a universal scale, and other times Lystra takes tremendous, life-altering loss and puts it in perspective. I think the reason I personally enjoyed both Treasure Hunt and Marseille so much was due to their clear snapshots on moments of defining identity. (In this case generally leaning towards masculine identity). The emotional poignancy of these moments will leave you aghast, and create an impressive juxtaposition to the equation-like dialogue.

Most of all, Donald Lystra’s stories perpetuate important traditions in Michigan literature, including how we interact with the land around us, examining how that makes us into certain people defined by region, and creating prose that is timeless in its terseness and candor.