People I Wanted to Be
by Gina Ochsner
(Houghton Mifflin)

People I Wanted to Be is a poetic, meditative new collection of short stories from Oregon's own Gina Ochsner. She opens with a quotation from David Barker: "according to quantum physics everything not forbidden can and will happen. That's both very good and very bad news." The epigram neatly explains Ochsner's outlook; in story after story she explores how lonely, unfulfilled lives are altered by the intrusion of the improbable.

Like fellow short-story maven Aimee Bender, Ochsner deals in magical realism, but Ochsner eschews Bender's glossy, pop-y aesthetic. Her world is desolate and gritty; her characters are lonely, often desperate; they drink, they smoke, they go home at night to empty apartments. In my favorite story, "A Darkness Held," a substitute teacher at a Catholic school spends her evenings chain-smoking, drinking Franzia, and musing that the emptiness of her life is proof that, "God not only winks at a full-blown drinking problem but is actually egging her on."

The sad, familiar routines of Ochsner's characters are interrupted by understated miracles: a prophetic mynah bird; the ghosts of unborn children; drawings that come to life. Though not always welcome, these miracles offer the possibility of escape, growth, and change. At the end of "A Darkness Held," the substitute teacher opens a window to take a breath of "air as pure as gin." That breath of fresh air is as close as Ochsner gets to a happy ending, and it's as close as she needs to get--cautious optimism is somehow much more comforting than happily ever after.

The repetitiveness of People I Wanted to Be makes it difficult to read more than a few stories in one sitting, as Ochsner sticks doggedly to her theme, and each story employs a similar narrative structure. However, she's created a wide variety of compelling characters, from a Czech ad writer to a spinstery mortician. Her prose is simple but affecting, and her ear for an elegant phrase makes even her table of contents read like poetry. This collection is best digested piece by lovely piece; taken as a whole, the glare of these shimmering gems could be blinding.