I was enthralled by Laura van den Berg’s short story “Opa-Locka,” a tale of two sisters who come together to form a private eye firm called Winslow & Co. The piece starts off in the midst of a stakeout: The sisters are spying on a potentially adulterous husband from the top of a nearby building. But the story doesn’t really take off, I think, until the stakeout fails and the sisters’ relationship begins to wane. The narrator, around whom the story is centered, loses her drive to work as a private investigator and stays at her home in Opa-Locka, trying to piece together the meaning behind some mysterious postcards she keeps getting in the mail. Her sister, Julia, on the other hand, continues her work as a PI, contracting increasingly more dangerous clients. As the story unfolds and reaches its conclusion, the narrator discovers that the postcards are actually coming from their father, who has been living in Nevada as a grifter, and soon after, Julia is shot and killed at a stoplight.
Van den Berg stages the narrator in concrete and familiar settings, and then subtly pulls her in and out of reality—the reality of Julia’s dangerous situation—to create a surreal and dreamlike setting. The transitions between realities aren’t dramatic, like going through a time machine, but they’re enough to reveal the author’s true intention for creating the character: to discover and explore the unknown. For instance, when the narrator is at the theatre listening to a performance by the singer Mrs. Defonte—a routine she’d developed to subdue her concern for her sister after leaving the private eye business—she becomes entranced by the actors and singers performing and the objects around them. This reveals some of the feelings and thoughts that were originally dormant in the narrator’s subconscious, such as her transparent love for her husband, elicited by a bouquet of flowers, and opens up her literary “heart” to the reader, allowing the reader to identify the writer’s desires behind the character.
Van den Berg shares the narrator’s longing for an alternative reality—a “way out” of reality. In an interview with herself, she revealed that her love—and fear—for the unknown came from the children’s book Where the Wild Things Are, and that she was “enamored with the idea of these creatures spiriting Max away to a different kind of world” (TNB interview). Van den Berg explained that Max, the protagonist in Where the Wild Things Are, took a journey to another world—a journey that is similar to that of the narrator in “Opa-Locka.”
The narrator’s journey is depicted in vivid detail, and the descriptions seem based on firsthand experience: “Back at the apartment, I called my husband . . . I tried calling him three times, but I couldn’t get through; his cell phone had been disconnected. For a while I pretended the beep beep beep was my husband trying to reach me. I told myself he was using Morse code, which I had learned about in detective school. ‘Hello,’ I said. ‘I’m listening’.” But really, Van Den Berg is writing about a different reality, and writing about what she doesn’t know, to create a more immersive understanding not only for the reader, but for herself: “I learned that I had to write what I didn’t know to find out what I did” (Tinge magazine interview).
I find the charm in van den Berg’s writing is not her tendency to escape into another world entirely, but the way she toes the line between the known and the unknown, and then provides subtle commentary on the experience of living on the edge of realism. She inspires the writer in me to flirt with the unknown at its indiscriminate threshold and find an alternative reality that works for me. I look forward to reading more of Laura van den Berg’s stories, such as What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us and her forthcoming book, Find Me, to discover more ways to create effective alternative realities within stories.
This post was written by Josh Vaught.