The title of Steven Gillis’ collection of short stories – The Law of Strings and Other Stories – couldn’t be more fitting. In Gillis’ fifteen tales, he examines the human condition through relationships with a keen eye for philosophical musings and theories of quantum mechanics. Some of the scenes Gillis paints for us verge on ridiculous but he handles the whimsy well. In the end, however, the stories are not about the plots: in each story, Gillis writes tragic characters who want nothing more than to be understood by and relate to others, even though numerous obstacles continuously prevent them from doing so. Using humor, absurdity, and scientific theories, Gillis illustrates the contradictory nature of relationships: how all humans seem to want is to connect to others and yet such a connection among such complex creatures is almost impossible. We all grasp at these metaphorical “strings” to tether us together while the world tries its hardest to pull us apart.
The collection starts with “Falling,” a story of a professional adventurer and stunt-man – that is, he get sponsored to perform stunts like walking across a tightrope that stretches between two mountain peaks – who eventually discovers that keeping the relationships he has in his life is more important than risking it. Once a reckless and fearless man, he begins to reexamine his life when he finds out his lover is pregnant. She remains noncommittal, never wanting to mention the word “love,” while he begins to cling to her more and more dearly. No longer does he want to perform dangerous, death-defying feats, he now worries for his own safety because he fears what would become of his lover and their unborn child should he die. This new outlook leads him to the conclusion that she is what matters most, even despite the fact that she refuses to admit her feelings. In this story, Gillis examines how the distance between two people can rival that of the space between mountain peaks. This space can seem as unconquerable as a thin stretch of wire but, in the end, Gillis asserts that an inherent part of being in relationships is having the courage to attempt the impossible. We see that, in “Falling,” the same tightrope that stretches between the mountain peaks stretches between the stunt-man and his lover and the stunt-man quickly realizes that the only way to cross one is to cross both.
Gillis examines this theme of wanting unattainable connections in the existentially troubling but humorous “What We Wonder When Not Sure.” In this story, a couple of generic businessmen hustle and bustle around an office, speaking desperately about “looking for it” wherever they go: hoping to find it in a barroom or on the street. No one ever defines what “it” is and, as the story progresses, you get the feeling that even the characters do not know what they are looking for. It can be said that the “it” in this story could conceivably stand for anything but they different ways in which the two main characters regard “it” seems as if they are seeking other people. The older, married business man wonders whether “it” is even out there for them to find. His younger, single colleague believes unequivocally that “it” is out there and there is nothing more important than finding “it.” The older business man has lived long enough to know that, no matter how tightly you tie yourself to someone, there will always be space between you. On the other hand, the younger man remains optimistic and naïve, refusing to question the nature of their search or the consequences of actually finding what they’re looking for.
In one of his more fantastical stories, Steven Gillis illustrates the inherent disconnect between people in an almost literal way. In “The Things We Cling to When Holding On,” a man awakes one morning to find he can levitate while a woman awakes to find she is unable to move and has basically turned to stone. When these two equally impossible people meet, they each try to fix the other: the man who can levitate tries to tell The Immovable Girl how easy levitating is while The Immovable Girl tells the floating man how her atoms had expanded in size and increased the density of her body. These two characters are complete opposites – one weightless and one weighted – but they both try desperately to force the other to change their nature. Their relationship is the epitome of a paradox and yet, in the end, they do manage to affect each other. In the end, Gillis tells us that, even though a real connection with another person is almost impossible, that does not mean that relationships are futile.
Ultimately, Gillis writes of the contradictory nature of human interaction. We will always be searching for someone to relate to and to understand us but, in the end, the strings we tie are not strong enough. His book is full of characters that consistently talk past each other, miss each other’s meanings, and never get the chance to fully explain themselves. It is obvious how badly these characters want to connect with those around them but something, inevitably, gets in the way: whether it’s the length of wire tied between two mountains or the physical impossibility of an Immovable Girl levitating.