Einstein’s Beach House|Review
Einstein’s Beach House, a collection of short stories by Jacob M. Appel, frames the ordinary and everyday with touches of hysteria and madness. We read of a psychotic hedgehog, a kidnapped tortoise, an imaginary friend, a rabbi, a murderer, a wife, a boyfriend, a child. The characters, in all of their ordinariness and their absurdities, have a hand in forming these insightful, moral tales. Appel conveys the choices and mistakes that people make, the love shared and loss felt. He creates a dialogue that is sharp and humorous and guides his readers through the lives of his antiheroes and heroines.
Jacob M. Appel holds master’s degrees in philosophy, bioethics, creative writing, and play writing. Having graduated from Harvard in 2009, he is licensed to practise law in New York and Rhode Island and he currently works as a psychiatrist in Mount Sinai in New York City while he polishes off his PhD on the history of American medicine and psychiatry.
Given this man has such an extensive research background and has dedicated his life to study you might anticipate that his writing would be clinical or academic in style. Contrary to this, Appel’s portrayal of people and places is extremely relatable. He depicts original stories and has created a spectrum of characters caught in absurd scenarios that clutch at human nature in all of its imperfections. His intellect and dedication to learning has informed his writing and honed his craft as a story teller.
The collection begins with ‘Cry and Hue’, the story of a sex offender who, after serving his time in prison, returns to his small town to the outrage of some and the intrigue of others. Our narrator reflects on this scenario as she describes her father, who is faced with a terminal illness, and his attempt to teach his daughter the importance of forgiveness.
‘La Tristesse des Hérissons’ (The Sadness of Hedgehogs) is a witty yet tragic story of two people and their unravelling relationship portrayed through the apparent psychosis of their fragile pet hedgehog: ‘Psychosis is common in hedgehogs. Depression far less so. But we have to take our patients as we find them I suppose.’ (p29)
‘The Rod of Ascelepius’ is the darkest story of the collection, reflected through the eyes of a child. It portrays her innocent bewilderment as her world crumbles around her. Viewing the world through the eyes of a child in story telling can often be lost in translation, but Appel captures this young voice beautifully, conveying the darkness of her environment. This short story depicts grief, manifesting itself in its cruellest form, resulting in deception and hatred: ‘What my six-year old self probably doesn’t realise then, though clear to me now, is that this may be the first time my father has left our apartment in several months, that I am witnessing the man emerge from a winter-long twilight of raw anger.’ (p116)
‘Sharing the Hostage’ is the wry tale of an ex-ventriloquist who agrees to be the third wheel on a double date with a woman and her turtle and suddenly finds himself implicated in a dramatic tortoise-napping: ‘“Are you anxious?” I ask. “Would you like a hug?” The tortoise pokes his head out tentatively. “Do you know what I would like, buddy?” he answers, “I’d like my liberty.”’ (p148)
Appel ventures into the supernatural in the final short story, ‘Paracosmos’. Here, a woman begins an affair with the father of her child’s imaginary best friend. This proves quite awkward, given she has just succeeded in convincing her daughter that this imaginary friend does not exist. She just can’t seem to bring herself to tell her new lover the same thing: ‘Although Leslie had promised Dowdy that she’d put in a good word for his daughter with Evie, two weeks elapsed before she finally mustered the courage. She truly did want to help Lauren – if the girl even existed.’ (p171)
These stories are a display of the difficulties and trivialities of the human experience. Appel has carefully constructed the lives of his characters in all of their quirks and complexities. Even the most irritating or deplorable of his characters intrigue his readers, as we recognise something of ourselves in them. Appel is a confident, observant writer. He has portrayed both the light and dark fragments that make us human, and he shows, in this short story collection, how people attempt to shape themselves and how they can fall apart.