Daniel Orozco, Orientation

With a scant nine stories nestled within its covers, each deceptively light and bubbling over with big-city caffeination, Daniel Orozco’s Orientation saunters in and announces itself as one of the year’s standout works of fiction. The subject matter may look familiar—fluorescent-lit workplaces, the subtle tics of daily routines, deeply coded love affairs—but Orozco gives everything one hell of a varnish. This whole book is marvelous.

Most obvious is Orozco’s ease within the short story form. “Hunger Tales” and “Temporary Stories” each do three quick variations on a theme (snacking habits and life as a temp, respectively); “I Run Every Day” nails the last-minute twist ending. The title storyis a model of compression, hitting many of the same notes as Joshua Ferris’s white-collar novel Then We Came to the End—only harder, with a better sense of humour, and all in the span of just 10 pages.

And “Officers Weep,” the stand-out piece in a collection full of them, uses such a brilliant experimental framework that it elicits equal parts admiration and stone-cold envy. Written in the form of a police blotter, we see a slowly blossoming relationship between two cops leak through the mundanity of their paperwork, one small detail at a time.

Each of the stories in Orientation is drawn with clean, orderly, muscular lines; it’s not quite minimalism, but unnecessary sentences are few and far between. Several of these pieces have already been anthologized, and Orozco, a creative writing professor at the University of Idaho, is obviously a craftsman who feels no compulsion to publish a book until each piece is just right. Accordingly, part of his acknowledgments reads: “This book has been a long time coming and a lot of people helped. Thank you, all. Thanks for waiting.”

Interestingly, Orozco shows a keen understanding of his own authorial methods. But, as all writers do, he buries it in a seemingly unrelated description—in this case, of a woman jogging around a lake. The narrator in “I Run Every Day” sees this woman one morning, admiring her “economy of motion,” the way that her every move and breath is performed solely in service of her run. Orozco’s stories possess this same economy, as graceful as they are efficient.

He can take unexpected risks, too. In “The Bridge,” we meet a team of gruff painters who have the Sisyphean task of keeping the Golden Gate Bridge looking spic and span. But then a woman jumps to her death, right in front of the new guy. Suddenly everyone turns quiet and mournful before the next day’s shift starts—it turns out they’ve all been on the job long enough to see a jumper firsthand, and each has been disturbed by the experience. This is a tough corner for a writer to turn, but Orozco makes it look easy.

Then there’s “Shakers,” a story about a lethal earthquake that transforms, somehow, into a love letter to the state of California—this despite an ending wherein a rattlesnake curls up on a wounded hiker’s chest as night falls.

Two kinds of death are staring him in the face. One way or another, he’ll be a corpse by sunrise. But all the hiker can think is “How cool is this!

Faber & Faber, 176 pp, $26.50, hardcover

(review originally appeared in the Edmonton Journal, August 7, 2011)

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