Everyday life presents unlimited opportunity for the telling of stories, and Swiss author Peter Stamm reinforces this assertion in We're Flying: Stories. In this collection, which explores the complexity of emotions in relation to ordinary events, Stamm writes with an observational style to show the complications of reality as disguised by the quotidian. His marginal results reveal just how difficult such a literary endeavor can be.
The book is divided into two sections, and the first shares the book’s title while the second section is called “The Ridge.” The titular connections are obvious, but the stories are not interlinked by repeating characters. Overall, the collection is rather dense—it culminates in a novel-length three hundred and seventy pages—which is somewhat remarkable in today’s modern writing world of slim-volume story collections. The individual tales vary in length, but they are long in comparison to the brief tales that readers will likely expect from a short story. Stamm avoids the realm of novella, but he does not hurry to end his narration in only a few pages. The exception to this is the last story, which punctuates like an epilogue and continues the novel-like structure.
As for the stories themselves, they explore similar themes with different techniques. Stamm uses all three narrative perspectives, shifting between each, and alternating the gender of the primary characters. Despite these shifts, the collection transitions nicely, and the reader is not confused by the change in narrative style. Stamm’s writing is effective in this manner; more importantly, it eases the obstinacy of his themes and helps the collection avoid forthright repetitiveness.
Nevertheless, certain human elements are explored more frequently than others. The most prominent theme is the relationships between women and men. While this is hardly a new realm for literature to venture into, Stamm does it especially well by keeping the success or failures of these relationships abstract. A good example is the story “Seven Sleepers.” When Stamm commingles the prospect of children with marriage, the result is excellent stories like the title story, “We’re Flying,” and the story “The Natural Way of Things.”
Some of the more common themes explored in literary collections are less present here. Alcohol is never really a predominant focus, despite its near-constant appearance in almost every story. Youth is mostly absent since the majority of Stamm’s characters are adults, but in “Men and Boys,” Stamm captures adolescent epiphany perfectly. In the excellent story “Years Later,” he skillfully displays regret about youthful mistakes. The adverse effects of grief are presented in “Videocity” and “The Suitcase,” but not with any real originality. Religion is touched upon briefly in stories like “Children of God,” but the message gets lost in the story’s density, which makes it incomparably dull.
One of the more interesting facets of this book is the way in which Stamm inserts modern-day objects into the narrative. Stamm’s writing about quaint villages and descriptions of old-fashioned methods give an impression of past occurrences when they are actually happening in present day. The abrupt appearance of SUVs and computers shocks readers by intruding upon the world that Stamm forces them to visualize, and the sudden presence of these items creates an interesting contrast in the narration and the story. Without them, the message of the tales could change, and one wonders if such items are purposely inserted by Stamm to prove a point. One possible interpretation is the intrusion of modern-day society into old-world European culture; while such a construct may be pure conjecture, nevertheless it is interesting to consider.
These slight details are really Stamm’s greatest strength in these stories, but he sometimes exceeds his ability to incorporate them by trying to accomplish too much. His slightly different approaches to the exploration of his themes gives the assemblage of stories cohesiveness, but such an approach fails in its creativeness. The material Stamm works with, though ordinary, holds potential that is limited by an unsuccessful attempt to evoke the fullness of everyday life. This is not for a lack of trying, but the collection does not fully capture the reader’s imagination because of this flaw, and despite the stories being fairly good, they ultimately fail to be memorable.