A Review of
Measuring Time and Other Stories
Paperback: Wiseblood Books, 2019
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Reviewed by Katie Karnehm-Esh
I began Nathaniel Hansen’s Measuring Time and Other Stories at the end of the first week of COVID-19 social distancing, in a CarMax dealership near Indianapolis. My friend, an asthmatic, was trying to safely secure a car to replace her 20-year-old Volvo. For many reasons, mostly relating to a loan officer at a bank, we left without success. She returned to quarantine with her rattling car; I returned with a book to finish. The whole day felt like the setup to a short story, or at least the short stories I usually read: a character has to make a small but pivotal choice, and is thwarted in the process, usually by another character. However, the stories I read that day in the car dealership had a different note. The characters in this short-story cycle find themselves in situations where their choices lead them to moments of compassion and revelation. But despite their linkages, all the characters seem to exist in a type of emotional isolation that mirrors the physical isolation of the book’s setting in the northern Plains States. And while one might be forgiven for assuming that in the world of Measuring Time these characters are all white, middle class, and heterosexual, the stories here effectively describe location, linked narratives, and the complications of limited perspectives.
Hansen’s Measuring Time and Other Stories (Wiseblood Books, 2019) describes itself as a short-story cycle set in “flyover country.” The twelve narratives link by way of their mutual characters or connections back to the town of Ellis, Minnesota, near the borders of South and North Dakota. Characters like Luke Elliston (whose name is confusingly similar to that of the town), Hannah, Claire, Marlon, and Dr. Ford people these stories, taking turns as protagonists, villains, and supporting actors. The stories range in length from a two-page flash-fiction piece (“Unnamed Notebook,”) to the title story that clocks in at ninety pages. Of the twelve stories, only one, “A Little Goodwill,” takes place not in Ellis, but in Portland, Oregon.
I confess I didn’t realize I was in a short-story cycle until the second time I read about a teenager named Luke who seemed especially heinous, or noticed that the place name Ellis kept cropping up. I went back to the stories and realized that Hannah, the character in “450 Miles to Minot” forced to choose whether or not to leave a controlling boyfriend, also appears in “Wildlife” as a college student popping in for office hours, and in “Measuring Time” as a sister’s friend in the bowling alley. Then I noticed others: Marlon is a local shopkeeper in “Vocations” as well “Frost.” Dr. Ford, the unseen professor in “450 Miles to Minot” has his own story in “Wildlife.” These are just a few examples: townspeople, friends, employers, students, and siblings thread back and forth throughout the stories, sometimes the star of their narrative, sometimes not.
In Hansen’s collection, the setting is as essential a character as any of the humans, and is arguably one of the finest elements of the book. The stories take us to winter in South Dakota, late summer in Minnesota, and an Amtrak ride to North Dakota. In the first story, “450 Miles to Minot,” readers understand the locale based on details such as “the lilac bush near the crooked back porch,” the “paint-shedding farmhouse” and the “bluish-gray house matching the clouds hovering over the Magic City.” In “The Rez Fairy” we feel the sandy, gritty wind hitting Alana, the main character, as she arrives at the reservation. These small narrative details also demonstrate the culture and moods of each story. Take, for example, the novella, “Measuring Time.” When we read that the family on a road trip doesn’t talk or sing while the a.m. radio plays country-western music, we begin to feel this isn’t the story of a happy family. We bristle when Toby’s dad tries to make him buy a BB gun when all ten-year-old Toby wants is a white model horse. And we feel Toby’s complicated emotions when, after finding out his father’s infidelity, he stops along the wetlands to watch a heron, thinks of Maggie and how she would like this view, and then flings his father’s keys out into the water.
This sense of the local is one of Hansen’s best strengths as a fiction writer. Another is his use of character and perspective. Almost all of the protagonists are young adults: high school, college, or early career. They range from a couple stranded in a ditch to a young professor who buys nostalgic Terry Redlin prints to a mother who just wants to bake beautiful cupcakes. The perspectives vary—Hansen tells most of the stories in third person, with a few in first person—but protagonists are equally male and female. And thanks be to God: Hansen’s female protagonists are well-written. I tended to prefer them to the male ones, probably because the female narrators had little commentary on the male characters’ bodies and clothing, while the male protagonists—particularly the teenage ones—most certainly did. I confess that in 2020, at age forty, I am bored with the male gaze in fiction. However, I recognize this as a personal hang-up, not a lack of writing ability of the author.
I thought a lot about perspective and worldviews while reading this book. I appreciated so many female voices; I also appreciated that when sexual experiences occurred in the stories, they weren’t always initiated by the male characters, or when male characters behaved badly, such as in “Tomorrow Morning Is Never Soon Enough,” and “A Little Goodwill” the protagonist swiftly intervenes. Yet based on these narratives, a reader might think that in the world of Ellis and the plains states, almost everyone is straight, cis, white, and safely middle-class. Some exceptions exist: in “A Little Goodwill,” one of the characters is a reformed stripper marrying the protagonist Mara’s brother. Mara spends most of the story despising her, then rescuing her at the end. Native Americans appear in two stories, (“The Rez Fairy,” and “On the Hi-Line,”) but are mostly drunk (both stories), clogging toilets (“On the Hi-Line”) and throwing sodas (“The Rez Fairy”). Here the protagonists are white women who ultimately experience a transformation because of, or in spite of, their disenfranchised antagonists. The stripper Leslie and the native Americans on the reservation and the train showcase the protagonists’ development, but seem unable to be complicated, developed characters in their own right.
The question of character diversity led me to start thinking about character development, because these aspects seemed to butt up against each other. Hansen’s storytelling indicates he is writing from lived experience, rather than pure invention, which possibly informs who is allowed to tell a story in Measuring Time. Also, a book of short stories does not need to demonstrate the gamut of human experience, and writing token diverse characters can be as bad as not writing them at all. However, location-driven books can bring an inadvertent danger if they describe only certain types of characters. Even if the book does not claim to speak for a whole region, readers might assume that the characters on the page are the limit of what exists in that world. Yet, Hansen’s writing tells us we are in the hands of a competent guide through both human emotions and the prairie states. The protagonists in Measuring Time are complex and nuanced individuals who make complicated choices. Toby, the protagonist of the title story, has to choose what to do when he finds his father’s secret. Hannah, in “450 Miles to Minot,” in a moment of relationship distress, decides to draw a map on her final exam instead of answering it. Timothy—Dr. Ford from the previous story—loves Terry Redlin prints but also obsesses over how his students and colleagues will judge him for his taste. Their actions and thought processes surprise us. And when Alana in “The Rez Fairy” chooses to help a Native client in a restaurant, that choice seems to demonstrate the limits of her understanding, rather than her goodness and magnanimity. Perhaps then, the privilege of the narrators is not so much an accident but an intentional choice made by an author who both understands his own privilege as well as that of his protagonists.
Yet, I still found myself frustrated by the lack of complexity in the supporting characters. They often behave and speak in predictable, stilted ways—or in ludicrous ones. For example, the girlfriend in “Roundabout” flashing a truck in order to get roadside assistance seems implausible at best. Villainous Luke Elliston walks out of a bowling alley restroom and, unprompted, possessively declares to Toby that “I’m the only one who gets her [Maggie’s] snatch.” In a later timeline, in “Tomorrow Morning is Never Soon Enough,” Luke makes banal sex jokes, swears, and attempts an early-morning date rape in a room inhabited by two other people. Is anyone this moronic and evil in real life? Likewise, the first few pages of “Measuring Time,” gave me hopes for a complicated father-son narrative. But while I loved reading Toby’s inner journey, his father, who slaps Toby and barks orders, seemed only terrible and mean. Maggie, Toby’s love interest, added little more than a pleasant subplot. The stories showcase insightful perspectives, but these insights seem to come one main character at a time, and seldom in concert with another character. I found myself wondering if the Luke Elliston’s and Toby’s dad’s of Ellis, Minnesota were truly this flat, or if they only appeared to be.
And here is where I had my second epiphany of the book. The more I reread these pieces, the more these stories remind me of my perceptions of others when I was twenty. Wiseblood describes the book as “twelve pieces [ . . . ][that] chronicle dysfunctional relationships, differing worldviews, self-deceptions, and misperceptions”—an accurate description of what it is to be a young adult. My brain was still developing before I stopped seeing other people as automatons put on earth to support my narrative. Measuring Time seems to demonstrate the pain and frustration of being a young adult who cannot see others in their full humanity. But this is also a book about compassion, in big and small ways. A key example might be Sheila in “Frost” feeding the diabetic man one of her gorgeous cupcakes. Would the compassion be as moving if the reader felt the antagonists and supporting actors deserved it? And would the protagonist’s insights be as profound if the reader didn’t have the slightly destabilizing experience of watching the hero of one story become a bit-part actor in another?Ultimately, reading Measuring Time gives the reader an opportunity for better seeing human perceptions at work. The book reminds us that we villainize others, just as Toby and Hannah do, and we in turn are sometimes villains, or vapid background noise. In my friend’s journey to CarMax, I was the mostly useless supporting character. Yesterday I sent an email that made me the villain of my student’s story. I am, no doubt, the antagonist of countless friends and co-worker’s lives every day. My actions, and yours, have wide consequences while our perspectives of others are far more limited. Measuring Time initially struck me as a book of stories about place, but it is also a book of stories about the smallness—and significance—of each of our lives as they intersect with the lives of others. It shows how we diminish, misunderstand, and willfully ignore or misrepresent other people. Here’s the beautiful part though—it’s also a book that shows that sometimes, we just so happen to do the right thing and in doing so create a little more grace in a hard, lonely world.