Jonathan Ball has built an impressive writing career that includes both poetry and fiction. That wild electricity of poetry explodes in his first full-length fiction collection, The Lightning of Possible Storms.
The Lightning of Possible Storms is categorized as a short story collection, and while it’s not quite a novel in stories, it’s something more cohesive than your average fiction collection. It is a reflection on books and writing, art, life and death, and our place in the Universe. It is also wild and experimental, which can sometimes be uncomfortable, but the language is tight and smart, keeping you reading for both plot and possibility.
The short stories themselves are framed by a meta-narrative in which the author leaves the book we’re reading in a café, and a server named Aleya finds it. The experimental meta-narrative feels at times like Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler meets the cosmic horror of H.P. Lovecraft.
Things get even more meta in the first story, “National Bestseller,” in which a character also named Jonathan Ball resolves to break out of literary obscurity by writing a commercial success. The writer’s inclusion of himself as a character in the book makes the whole thing feel like a strange kind of fictional meta-autobiography.
This writing about writing continues in “The Best Story Ever Submitted to Your Magazine,” which takes the form of a submission letter a delusional writer sends to a magazine about a story he hasn’t written yet.
The writer as a character is a risky move, as it often comes off as self-indulgent—and it is to some degree—but Ball writes effortlessly, blending fact and fiction, inserting himself into the narrative. This playfulness often shatters the fourth wall (and all the other walls for that matter) and makes the book feel like something more than the sum of its parts, something beyond fiction.
The overarching story of Aleya comes back periodically, interspersed with the stories in the collection proper. These sections have no title or indication that they are not part of the previous story. At one point, Aleya muses, “As different as these stories are, they seem like a suite of sorts, Ball moving through the phases of a career, through different skins. But who is this writer of hers? The more his name appears, the less defined he seems to be.” (p 71)
Not all the stories are about writing though. Immediately after the second Aleya section, the book shifts to more traditional stories. “Costa Rican Green” is a poignant, emotionally-charged travel story, and “Judith” is a sci-fi story about machines that can predict how you will die. Then there are wild, experimental tales, like “Capitalism”, which is about the personification of capitalism itself.
“The War with the Dead” is a short meditation on life and death, and the permanence of art and ideas. It seems to be a turning point in the book. Until this point it has been experimenting with themes, and has finally arrived at its heart.
All of these explorations of writing and art are surreal and fragmented, yet woven together masterfully. Each story is a collection of threads that seems meaningless until you begin to see how they connect, how the ideas and concepts come together to form a cohesive tapestry that is far greater than the sum of its parts.
In the title story, “The Lightning of Possible Storms,” all the fragments collide. Aleya enters a proper story in the collection, not just the space between them, and things begin to become clear.
And if everything becomes clear in the title story, reason is exploded again in “About the Author,” which is either a story itself, or an actual ‘about the author’ section that Ball cleverly wrote about himself. In this section or story, Ball talks about the desire to write an autobiography. We have to wonder then, is the whole book itself some kind of strange autobiography made more factual through the freedom of fiction?
“Every story is true, somewhere. It does not matter that you do not believe.” (p 179)
Bound by the meta-narrative with Aleya, and the larger meta-narrative that might be Ball’s autobiography, The Lightning of Possible Storms is more of a wholistic experience than most collections. Because of the way the Aleya parts and the concepts build, the book should be read straight through from beginning to end, not jumping between stories the way a reader can in a typical short story collection.
In the hands of a lesser writer, these complex concepts could have fallen flat. Fortunately, Ball is the kind of masterful writer you trust to take you wherever the story may lead. When you arrive at the last page, you may wonder how the hell you got there, but you will know that you have experienced something entirely new and wondrous on the journey.
The story “Capitalism” first appeared in Prairie Fire’s “Living in a House on Fire” issue in fall of 2020.
The Lightning of Possible Storms won the 2021 Margaret Lawrence Award for Fiction at the Manitoba Book Awards.
The Lightning of Possible Storms
by Jonathan Ball
Book*hug Press, 2020, 209 p.p., $20
Will Fawley holds an MFA from George Mason University where he was assistant fiction editor for Phoebe Journal of Literature and Art. His fiction has appeared in Parallel Prairies, Unburied Fables, Expanded Horizons, The Northern Virginia Review, Another Place: Brief Disruptions, and Sassafras Literary Magazine, and his book reviews have appeared in Prairie Fire (online), The Winnipeg Review, and As It Ought to Be.