Rebecca Brown is one of the best-kept secrets of short fiction. A San Diego native who now lives in Seattle, she made her literary debut in the mid-'80s with The Evolution of Darkness and recently published The End of Youth. These titles are appropriate bookends for her work, as to read Brown's fiction for literal meaning or autobiography is like trying to follow a musical note from the moment it twangs off an antique slide guitar to its last mechanic warble. Listen closely and you're not always sure when the sound has stopped or if it does at all. In this fashion, Brown borrows from the weight of the memoir without ever having the responsibilities of factualness, a trick she accomplishes devilishly well in The Last Time I Saw You. The word "I" recurs throughout this strange and beautiful book, but in the end the distinction of whether this is fiction or memoir feels moot, since the book is clearly a work about fracturing. The title piece atomizes an encounter with an old lover down to the second. The more the speaker studies her memories, the more vivid and less certain they become. Did they meet in a café, or was it a bar? Was there really an old alcoholic sucking down shots, or is that an invention? Did the author in fact meet anyone at all, or was she simply at a bar talking to herself? Lydia Davis performed this kind of experiment in her debut collection, Break It Down, and it is to Brown's credit that she performs it repeatedly here without deadening the effect. Each story begins with a surety and then proceeds to smash it to smithereens, leaving us with a thousand tiny shards of brilliance. Occasionally, Brown falters begins with too little and departs with too many airy flourishes. But mostly, these stories do something thrillingly fresh. They teach us how to read backward; how to understand that what we see on the page is just a beginning, never the end.
The Last Time I Saw You
By Rebecca Brown
(City Lights, 136 pages)
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