Antonya Nelson’s collection, Nothing Right, does three things very, very well: theme, image and smash-bash beauty.
Focusing chiefly on the relationships in families the collection explores what constitutes “family” and how family might differently be understood as either biology or care. As each story explores these familial relationships they also tease out what responsibilities we hold to our family – individual relations and the institution as a whole. It reminds the reader that perfection – once glimpsed or imagined – in person or relationship is an ideal best abandoned, though rarely done away with. That despite the logical recognition that we cannot be perfect mothers, or siblings, or friends – that we will make mistakes and that we are inevitably flawed – that we all (is all an overstatement? the collection suggests “all,” so I’ll say “all,” and definitely me) continue to castigate ourselves for these failures, these most mundane disappointments.
There are breath-taking images in the collection that function to complicate theme or to enrich character, but occasionally appear to serve the exclusive purpose of proving This is a Literary Collection. It’s not a complaint, really, because these are images that I marveled at and felt buoyed by, and yet still felt a tinge of doubt: were these images adding something or simply there to demonstrate the (really quite accomplished) skill of the author?
And then I settled on “beauty” as the answer. In several instances I stopped bothering about whether Nelson was showing off, or whether the image or metaphor added anything exceptionally rich to the story itself, and just allowed myself to indulge in these kernels of beauty. Tucked away phrases that remind me that while there may be ‘nothing (absolutely) right’ there are these exquisite instances – here in text, but perhaps in all of our lives, in all of our persons – that (attempt to) hold at bay the potential for crushing nihilism or self-loathing that might accompany the recognition and admission that we are only ever degrees of failure. That abandoning the ideal or the hope of perfection doesn’t allow a concomitant abandonment of effort, because occasionally we may deliver, or be delivered, stunning beauty.