Stuart Dybek: bungee jumping through the trapdoors of time

Unaccountably little-known outside the US, his stories take the reader from a carefully observed midwest into a past that is very much alive

Like Steven Millhauser, Deborah Eisenberg and Edward P Jones, Stuart Dybek is one of a relatively small group of American writers with considerable domestic reputations who, for reasons I don’t understand, are largely unread in the UK. This is particularly baffling in Dybek’s case given that recent literary trends, especially the permeable boundary between fiction and autobiography and an essayistic approach to storytelling, are areas he has been exploring with great style and skill for decades.

Dybek has described one of art’s primary functions as being “to defy time … to preserve the past not by storing it in a museum but by making it come alive in the present”. His fiction is obsessed with recollection, and the descriptions that persistently recur in it – of the Polish and Latino neighbourhoods of Chicago, the Illinois lake country, tenement apartments and rattling L trains – do so with memory’s uncannily vivid focus, mapping a relatively confined but intensely described territory.

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