A Fingerprint Repeated
Press 53, 2013
174 pp. $14.95 (paperback)
Reviewed by Jeremy Griffin
In an essay, the late author John Gardner once warned against settling for “mere fiction” in one’s own writing. Jeffrey Condran seems to have taken this to heart in his debut story collection A Fingerprint Repeated. However, Condran still has a long way to go with his work before reaching the level of profundity that Gardner advocated.
To say that these stories are about the relationships between white Americans and Arab-Americans would be true but a bit misleading. In some cases these relationships are indirect, as in “House of Terror,” in which a Washington-based journalist discovers that his wife has donated half their savings to a Jordanian poet. In other instances, the relationships are much more direct, like in “Praha,” in which the narrator, an academic now living in Prague, bumps into the husband of a Yemeni woman with whom he once had an affair.
What is misleading here, however, is that while almost all of these relationships involve some degree of contention, it is unclear what the reader is supposed to do with that information. Ostensibly, Condran is trying to draw attention to the cultural rift between the U.S. and Islam, except I can’t imagine any American who is unaware of this issue, and so I’m left wondering what it is that he wants to tell us that hasn’t already been said.
To Condran’s credit, the prose in A Fingerprint Repeated is sharp and witty, compelling but not at the expense of the plot. Each story is crafted with an admirable degree of subtlety, maybe even a bit too subtle at times. The characters seem to be largely reactionary; the stories tend to focus on their responses to certain events instead of the events themselves. And while there is nothing inherently wrong with this, I kept waiting for someone to do something, to take some active role in his tale, but for the most part these characters seem content to watch their stories unfold before them. It’s almost as if Condran is afraid of what his characters might do if granted too much freedom. Many of the stories are, to a considerable degree, “told” to us through authorial interpretation, the result of which is a kind of narrative distance that prevents us from getting inside the stories the way we’d like to.
None of this is to say that A Fingerprint Repeated is bad. It isn’t. Actually, in many respects it’s an outstanding debut from a writer with a promising future. I just wish that Condran were more interested in taking risks with his work, trusting the reader to engage with the plot rather than falling back on tiresome exposition.
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