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Babylon and Other Stories by Alix Ohlin

Seventeen Stories to Make You Ponder

To relate the unfamiliar to the familiar, people equate the known to the unknown: the “tastes like chicken” argument. Novelist Alix Ohlin has been compared to once-frequent New Yorker fiction writer Lorrie Moore. When I think of Moore, I think of a specific passage where a new college student says: “in the dorm you meet many nice people, some are smarter than you, some are dumber than you. You will continue, unfortunately, to view the world in exactly these terms for the rest of your life.” So it is with this in mind that one reads Ohlin, the Harvard graduate, wondering if her protagonists will share the same pompous burden.

At first glance, this seems to be a valid fear. The first story, “King of Kohlrabi” elicits a certain prep school smugness. People in supermarkets bother 16-year-old Aggie with questions about strange produce which leads to a boring summer job answering phones which leads to an opportunity for her abandoned mother to hijack her daughter’s hipper identity. Similarly, in “Wonders Never Cease” a faculty wife, dreaming of children, silently resents the intrusion of her lonely landlady, mocking her home baked treats, even when she discovers that the root of the woman’s avid attention stems from tragedy,

But these are two examples out of seventeen. Reading further in the collection, you will find lakeside science writers, lawyers with relatives who marry often, Russian exchange students in New Mexico, compulsive liars in Manhattan, as well as reporters and cops in Rhode Island. With these type of people, indifference has no currency.

Ohlin is particularly adept with the character triangle. In “Simple Excercises” an eight-year-old boy begs for piano lessons in spite of the fact that his family can’t afford a piano. The boy gravitates to his piano teacher and her son. Recognizing that this new trangulation won’t work, he returns to his own home grounded when his father leaves his pregnant mother. In “You Are Here” a college student pretends to be French and sees the possibilities and limitations of her boyfriend when he eerily seems too much like their art professor. In “Entropy” a science writer oscillates between connection with his romantic partner and his acquisitions editor, and once given the chance to change on both fronts, refuses.

While most of the stories are crafted with a female voice, Ohlin experiments with the male protagonist with great success. In “Tennis Partner” young Kyle witnesses his father’s tennis matches with his “nemesis.” His father consistently loses, and yet refuses to give up. Ohlin reiterates his character with his choice of other pastime: a 10,000 piece jigsaw puzzle based on a Jackson Pollock print, impossible to shore together. Kyle must decide whether to participate in situations where he knows he will lose. Another great story is the title track “Babylon” about a computer guy who falls in love for the first time with a woman he picks up at a wedding. Each opportunity to find out more about her cements his interest, and yet when each thing she says turns out to be a lie, he mitigates the deception because he can’t ignore how he viscerally feels around her.

Hopefully Ohlin will be read enough that she won’t have to be compared to anyone in the future. She has a solid voice all her own.

Babylon and Other Stories by Alix Ohlin
Knopf Publishers
July 25, 2006
Hardcover, $22.95
ISBN: 0-375-41525-4
276 pages