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Daniel Orozco Orientation Essays On Poverty

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Click here to read about “Post-40 Bloomers,” a new monthly feature at The Millions.

It’s the biography that gets you; especially if you are yourself an aspiring writer of fiction, feeling rushed rushed rushed to be “20 Under 40” or bust. I mean, imagine:

You graduate college (1979), and for 11 years you do various kinds of office work — human resources, that sort of thing. Then, inspired or perhaps just restless, you start “tinkering with a story idea.” It nags at you, you keep working on it, and when you finish it, you use it to apply to a writing program (MA, San Francisco State, 1992). You are still not sure you “want” to be a writer per se, but something about the process, the intensity of creative focus, absorbs you like nothing else; so you go on for two more years of school (MFA, University of Washington). Then, bam — publication in Best American Short Stories a year later (“Orientation,” 1995). Two years after that you win a Pushcart (“The Bridge”) and you publish another story (“Hunger Tales”). You are in your late 30s; fucking-A, you are on your way.

Probably your agent and your cohorts are asking if you have a novel. You don’t. You write very slowly. You are not prolific. So far, you really just have three good stories to show for yourself. Okay, three very good stories (so they say). Over the next six years, you write and publish another very good story (“Temporary Stories,” 1999) and then another (“I Run Every Day,” 2001). Still: six years since that best American short story (the clever one about office life that everyone was talking about) and no novel yet, not even a full story collection.

But you are serious about your work, ticking time clock be damned. You’ve been a Stegner Fellow and a Jones Lecturer during this time period, after all. You are developing your body of work in your own sweet time.

In 2002 you are offered a one-year teaching position that turns into a tenure-track writing professorship the following year. And you haven’t even published a book! Five stories, and you are employed for life! You will never have to work as a temp or a human resources officer again. You are now in your mid-40s.

After you settle in as a university professor, things really start to take off. Over the next five years, you write and publish four more stories (at roughly once/year, that’s twice as fast as you published the previous five). You win an NEA Fellowship, a Lannan Foundation Residency, two MacDowell residencies, and one of those four stories (which is actually nonfiction) is published in Best American Essays. In 2011, your collection, which you title after that first best American story, is finally published; and that same year you win a Whiting Award and are long-listed for the Frank O’Connor Short Story Award. At 52 years old, you are a “debut author.” Nine stories; 16 years in the making.

And the book is damn good.

The book is damn good. Reviewers agree, and I don’t have a lot to add to that chorus.

What I will say is how amazed I was at Daniel Orozco’s ability to move from the impersonal to the deeply intimate, from the outside-in to the inside-out, with such skill, precision, and, most surprisingly, gentleness. You don’t know how you got there — underneath the skin of these (often nameless) characters, feeling the throb of private wounds as if they are your own — but you’re there, fully, in an instant. Most of the stories are written from a roving omniscient point-of-view; the narration typically begins from a coolly formal distance, flat and unparticularized. “Those are the offices and these are the cubicles.” “It was tradition on the bridge for each member of the paint crew to get a nickname.” “She went grocery shopping three times a week.” “Two men followed a third man up the street one night.” Others (in particular “Officers Weep,” written in the form of a police blotter, and ultimately one of my favorites) experiment with forms that, on the surface, threaten gimmickry. I confess that I had the book on my shelf for a few months before delving in, because, having skimmed the first sentences and the shapes of each story, I couldn’t imagine “getting into” them. But by the third story (once I did set myself to reading), I couldn’t wait to see how Orozco would do it – how he’d come up from behind me with a beat-up old club chair, slip it underneath my knees, effectively saying, “Stay a while. Have a seat. You’ll need it.”

A short way of saying all this is that Orozco has done what I’ve always hoped to do in my fiction: he’s written “idea stories” – stories that begin with a formal experiment or an intellectual question or situational problem – that also break your heart.

Finally, despite comparisons to David Foster Wallace, Don Delillo, Joshua Ferris, et alia – authors who are known for depicting the soul-crushing hyperrealities of “modern-day alienation” or “the tyranny of dehumanizing institutions and technology” – Orientation is not about “alienation,” modern-day or otherwise; nor about the effects of a particular cultural transition or economic decline. The stories are about loneliness. About the awful, persistent distance between you and me, between me and me, between each of us and the spiritual-whatever in the universe; all of which keeps us wondering what the hell this life is about, and how we will survive it. This seems an important distinction to me, and what has allowed Orozco’s work – some of it 16 years-old – to debut with full emotional resonance.

Mostly I’m glad for Orozco’s damn good example – of taking your time. Of doing what you do, as very best as you can do it, and shutting out the noise of what everyone else is doing. Of focusing on quality not quantity, which seems an apt, if cliché, mantra for someone who set most of his stories in uninspiring workplace settings. Orozco’s cumulative oeuvre to date, and how it came to be, is itself a resonant narrative, the 10th story of the collection you might say. It speaks to the reader about foraging for a truthful place, a perch of realness, in the midst of and despite the specter of loneliness.

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Sonya Chung is author of the novels Long for This World (Scribner 2010) and The Loved Ones (Relegation Books 2016), which was a selection for Kirkus Best Fiction 2016, Indie Next List, Library Journal Best Indie Fiction, TNB Book Club, Buzzfeed Books Recommends, and Writer's Bone Best 30 Books 2016.  She is founding editor of Bloom and teaches fiction writing at Skidmore College.  Learn more about Sonya here.

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