Review by: Sandra Tarling

May 2003

The Demon of Longing
By Gail Gilliland
ISBN 0-88748-362-3

Demon of Longing, the title of Gail Gilliland's short story collection--which is also the lead story's title-- announces the central thematic strand that threads throughout all of these meticulously crafted stories.  Through the experiences of a Vietnam vet living in a down-and-out motel, an emotionally fragile Massachusetts woman fleeing a failed relationship, a young college girl seeking a relationship with an overly possessive man, and other diverse protagonists, we see how desire influences the choices all of us make in our lives.  This longing, how these characters are drawn to someone or something in their lives, is central to these stories in a variety of ways.  Desire works to draw characters towards the longed-for objective, or, as it often does, draw them towards it only to turn them away from that which is desired out of fear of what may happen when the "demon of longing" is met.

Many of these stories focus on the longing associated with language, the written and spoken word, and the sharing of life experiences through storytelling.  In "The Demon of Longing," "When Amelia Smiled," and "Dog Stories," the tales that are shared and passed on are linked to unfulfilled desire.  The narrator in "The Demon of Longing" expresses this desire directly: "All I have ever wanted to do, all I am longing to do this instant, . . . is just to write."  In "When Amelia Smiled," the narrator grows up listening to her father's stories, including his story about meeting Amelia Earhart.  Over time, Amelia has become something larger for both the narrator and her father.  She represents hope and a longing for what women can achieve in life, and also that Amelia herself and what she symbolizes survive despite her mysterious disappearance.

In "Dog Stories," the narrator of "When Amelia Smiled," who is also named Amelia, reappears as the protagonist.  She had always wanted to have a dog as a child, but was never allowed to have one, even though her older sister who died had owned dogs.  Her father told Amelia many dog stories as she grew up, which fed her longing for a dog.  So when Amelia's own daughter wants a dog, they go the animal shelter where the story of an abused dog triggers memories of every dog story she has heard.  These stories represent pain and loss, and are irrevocably linked to "the place where her dead older sister Caroline has gone, and the place her father has always looked whenever he is straining to see someone or something he has loved too much."   Finally, Amelia chooses not to get a dog because it represents the inevitable pain of losing someone or something that is loved.

In the title story, the narrator refers to French critic Rene Girard's study of the triangularity of desire that underlies romantic love that requires that an obstacle exist between the lover and his/her object of desire.  In those stories in the collection about two people drawn together by desire, the obstacles to the protagonists’ romantic longing are characterized as cross purposes, unequal desire, and failed expectations.  “Permanence" is narrated by a linguistics professor thinking back to a relationship she had with a man that began just after she graduated from high school.  It is apparent that even though more than ten years have gone by, this man is still important to her.  She is re-telling a story she has gone over countless times, taking the "passion and feeling out of words and gestures, . . . taking words for nothing more than for what they are."   All these years, she has never forgiven him for not writing to her when she went off to college, and then expecting they could resume their relationship by simply writing her a letter two years later.  In the end, she files away his final letter, received so many years later, as if closing a chapter in her life.

In other stories, characters long for love as a healing or restorative force.  In "News of the World," the protagonist seeks refuge in her unquestioning love for her toddler daughter Shana after having been beaten by her abusive husband, Leonard.  In thinking about the strength of a mother's love for her child, she wonders "why can't I just hold all of them, Leonard . . . and all of the others I've never heard of, just as if I were holding Shana, but go beyond?"  And then, just for a few minutes, she feels the transforming power of love, "clear down into Ethiopia."  The love the protagonist feels for her child, so pure and unambiguous, inspires her to feel the positive power possible through unselfishly loving others, which is a place of refuge from her husband's destructive love.

Whether the story is told in first person or third person, the voices in these stories are intimate, even confessional at times, as the protagonist narrates (in most cases) her story.  A sense of urgency often characterizes the telling, as if it is essential in some way that the protagonist shares her experience with us.  The reader senses that this urgency also expresses a compelling need on the part of the protagonist, as in "The Demon of Longing" and "Permanence," to re-tell her story to gain a better understanding and perhaps even acceptance of what has occurred in the past.  Overall, we come to understand that the act of storytelling, in and of itself, is ultimately important as it is demonstrated in a myriad of ways throughout these stories.

In reading these compelling stories, the reader herself experiences the attraction that storytelling holds for us.  The act of reading demonstrates our need to speak to one another through the written word.  In "The Demon of Longing," a character thinks about Dante's story of Paolo and Francesca for a course she is planning, and she considers the role of books more universally.  She concludes that "it is still the province of the book (any book at all, it seems to me) to seduce our longing selves.  Like Paolo and Francesca, we discover the spiritual intimacy we have in common with those who read." 

Certainly Gail Gilliland's stories succeed in seducing "our longing selves" as we read these tales inhabited by "the demon of longing."  And in the act of reading them, like Dante's characters, we experience a sense of intimacy that we share with our fellow readers.

Also by Gilliland: Being a Minor Writer, a nonfiction exploration of genres and "great" vs. "minor" literature.

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