Short Story Review: The Odyssey by Jia Tolentino

The Fictionphile Short Story Review series endeavors to bring you at least one short story review per week. These stories will always be available for reading free online, so that you may read them yourself and form your own opinion. Also, please note that no story will ever be reviewed that would garner less than a 7 on a 10-point scale, as it would be a waste of your time. All reviews can be taken as a recommendation for your reading pleasure, and we recommend you reading them in advance of reviews, as spoilers should be expected within these critiques.

The Odyssey
by Jia Tolentino
Score: 8/10
Published: Carve Magazine
Nominated for Pushcart Prize
1st Place Winner of the Fall 2012 Raymond Carver Short Story Contest

This is a compelling and honestly presented tale. At first, when the subject of homosexuality is introduced one could rightly moan “not another story relying on a gimmick.” However, The Odyssey tries and largely succeeds in presenting something deeper.

The story is about a Kyrgyzstan man who is gay, and keeps this from his wife and children by venturing to a far off field regularly to indulge in his desires and shame. Tolentino reveals layers, however, and crafts a story about the death of childhood, dreams, and love.

Through flashbacks we see that the man, Ulan Esenovitch, is tortured by more than one memory. One, his dog was murdered in a hit-and-run at the age of nine, but he was never allowed to grieve. In a country where old traditions like “bride kidnapping” still occurs, where men are allowed to steal women off the side of the road and claim them as brides lawfully, a gentle boy is not allowed to thrive. Also, with the soviet influence of the time, his boyhood crush is arrested and presumed beaten to death by the government for being gay himself. Throughout, Ulan is also dedicated to being a “good man”: never beating or berating the wife whom he doesn’t love (unlike his neighbors) and providing for his children on a taxi driver’s salary. Still, the unspoken question is, how can a man be a good man if he is not allowed to be himself?

The ending, which I will not completely spoil for you here, for it’s worth reading, manages to combine all of these factors into one “I get it” moment. You see that these things are not unrelated, and that this man is forever doomed to desire without actualization.

My only negative is the writer’s descriptive style. She often tells rather than shows, especially in the story’s first section. For instance, the first few paragraphs detail a traffic jam caused by what we must assume is a meteor shower. The heavenly display itself is described only with “Around the winding curves of the road, strange asteroids were falling.” There is no attempt to truly bring forth a unique image in our reading mind, but instead the simple adjective “strange” is meant to do the work. Similarly, in another passage, she writes “Thinking of imagined places, he drove down into the valley, the pastures in front of him saturated with color as sunset slid imperceptibly into night.” It is a well-written sentence, and somewhat beautiful by its inherent literacy, but I felt a bit frustrated by “saturated with color.” I would have enjoyed a better representation of what sounds like a beautiful image. Instead, I had to supply my own color. Personally, I prefer the writer to provide the details. Call me a lazy reader, but I feel it’s their vision, not a collaboration.

But it’s clear that Ms. Tolentino excels in the inner workings of our world even if I was disappointed by her representation of its exterior, which is acceptable for a short story more than any other medium. Still, this lack of showing detail instead of sprinkling in brand names like “Adidas” is what kept the score from being a 9 or 10.

Even if you’re somewhat tired of the gay device in stories these days, this is worth a read. It is not about a gay man but instead about a man who’s potential in life has been squashed by his surroundings, and about the tragedy that comes when one is not allowed to be free in mind, body, and spirit. Ulan’s sexuality is simply a beautiful conflict-generating manifestation of this universal predicament.

Ms. Tolentino can be found on Twitter @JiaTolentino and on her Tumblr blog.

If you have a short story you would like considered for our Short Story Review series, send it to fictionphile@gmail.com. We prefer published works, but it must be available somewhere online for free so that our readers may readily enjoy them. If it has not been published, it can still be reviewed as long as you make it available for free somewhere online and we deem it worthy of our 7/10 minimum.

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