As writers churn out novels about zombies and the apocalypse — books that portray our shared anxieties about the early 21st century — Laura Kasischke's first collection of stories, If a Stranger Approaches You, describes a world haunted, not by the undead, but by the phantoms of unemployment, increased airport security and missed credit card payments. The signature confluence between realism and the uncanny found in much of Kasischke's writing, both as poet and novelist, makes this book an important addition to her own body of work and to the contemporary literature of end times. If a Stranger Approaches You aptly depicts the mundane and ephemeral forces propelling us to our fates; not even the unspeakable escapes Kasischke's eye.
Inside the tidy suburban homes she writes about, her characters feel an impotence that pushes through the surface of their lives to make strange disturbances. In "Melody," a newly separated father walks down his former street to his daughter's birthday party. He's both distracted and enraged by his wife's insistence on a normalcy that belies the tension between them. He reviews their shared history and finds himself trying to halt the force of his hurtling and desperate momentum, which leads him to a point of no return. Kasischke accurately describes the psychodynamics of a little girl's birthday party, complete with gossiping queen-bee mothers and their daughters who cheat at Pin the Tail on the Donkey. The story veers from the bone-chilling tedium of the domestic to the sinister dread we feel when our lives are getting away from us. Of the family's neighborhood Kasischke writes: "Here, no one had to be reminded to mind his or her own business. Your neighbors could be lying on their front lawn, moaning in agony, and you'd just politely pull your curtains closed so you wouldn't offend them by noticing. It was that kind of suburb in which, every ten years or so, something horrifying might happen."
Kasischke notices the agony. In this slender collection packed with tight, dark stories, she replaces exposition with a keen compression that, perhaps paradoxically, renders the world more accurately than mere realism. In the story "The Foreclosure," a young woman is consumed with a desire for a new home to replace the apartment she pays for by working in a cubicle, so she navigates her neighborhood to appease her needfulness. In describing the tidy, seemingly haunted homes, Kasischke writes, "If people were losing their houses, selling them in desperation for songs, they were hiding their troubles well. Everyone, it seemed, had a rocking chair, a calico cat, a flowering shrub under a picture window." The book's title story, a tale about a woman waiting for an airplane who accepts a package from a stranger, portrays what it is to be a working mother, but it also functions as an allegory for the post-9/11 world.
From her first poetry collection, Wild Brides, in which she chronicles the poignant desires of an adolescent girl, to her 2011 novel The Raising, which describes the mysterious death of a girl in a college town, Kasischke's work has always been tinged with the fabulous and visceral. While unease envelops the suburbs, many of the characters in If A Stranger Approaches You still find hope in the sometimes irreparably changed circumstances of their lives. Kasischke writes beautifully about this strange form of recompense, as in the ending of the story "Somebody's Mistress, Somebody's Wife":
Karen nodded ... feeling the tears gather in the corners of her eyes, but also feeling swollen with wonder at this strange life and her own role in it, full of a kind of regret that was also a kind of genuine awe.