We see plenty of tragic irony in Laura van den Berg’s book of short stories, The Isle of Youth. Much of it is crystal clear: something bad is going to happen to our hero, and he’s unaware, and it’s inevitable. But it’s rarely applied directly to the protagonists.
Here, a young woman describes hunting turkeys:
When it appeared, its tail feathers were spread into a beautiful rust-colored fan. Dana thought he looked big and regal, and for the first time the gap between what she knew and what the animal knew seemed cruel.
In another story, a character watches a community production of Don Giovanni:
Run away, I would whisper in the back row. Just run away. Of course, he never did, and it wouldn’t have changed anything if he had.
But of course, these are contemporary short stories, not classically structured dramas, and the ironies are layered and tilted in a way that’s somehow both familiar and entirely new. It’s as though we haven’t seen our old friend tragic irony in years, and now she looks uncanny when we see her again.
The women in these stories don’t quite know the shape of what’s coming, but they know it’s bad, and then they lean right into it. These disasters are all the more poignant for being entirely avoidable, and seen in advance by protagonist and reader and author alike.
In van den Berg’s stories, diffident women marry indifferent men; teenagers rob banks; estranged daughters drive to the jailhouse where dad’s locked up, then can’t get out of the car.
Each story is over in about a half-hour or 45 minutes, and each one leaves me shattered.