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The Theory of Light and Matter

Vulnerable, hopeful characters populate this award-winning collection of short stories.

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Of all the things to love about The Theory of Light and Matter, Andrew Porter’s wonderful collection of short stories, my favorite is how tenderly his characters treat one another’s failings and vulnerabilities. Like outsiders looking in, one step removed from their own lives, Porter’s characters tread carefully in their quest toward understanding.

Such tenderness was a hallmark of minimalist master Raymond Carver – not a bad writer with whom to be compared. While Porter’s young characters haven’t yet fallen on the hard times that Carver’s have, their sensitivity is just as stirring and their subtle moments of epiphany just as poignant.

But where Carver’s tales tend to follow a linear projection, action rising to a climax, Porter favors a more circular route. His stories contain not just the retelling of what happened, but also the stories the narrators tell themselves long after: what it meant then, and what it means now.

Porter plays with the effect time has on memory. At times the reader may feel unmoored; after all, we’re hearing these stories from narrators who wanted things to have turned out differently.

In “River Dog,” a confused younger brother hears that his older brother, whom he idolizes, committed a reprehensible act against an unwitting girl. Still unable – or unwilling – to understand it, he later writes an essay about it in college, only to have the professor write across the front page: “The reader deserves to know what really happened.”

It’s a wonderful line on two levels: First, we assume the little brother, too, feels he deserves to know what really happened; but how can he tell the teacher something he doesn’t know?

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