Reviewed by Liana Cusmano
In his latest short fiction collection, Lost Aria, Carmelo Militano explores love, lust, art, artifice, and the tension between present and past. These elements bind together the collection’s eight stories, making the transition from one to the other seamless and sensual.
In the short story “An Oneiric Education,” Militano expands the trope of the anxiety-ridden, artistic young man. The results are protagonists like Nino in the opening story, ‘Tomato’ in “The Poets” and Marco in “The Artist,” – men from immigrant families seeking to distance themselves from a blue-collar background with art and higher education, who ultimately learn that their plan to use writing for self-actualization is unfortunately romantic and untenable. They will not find the women of their dreams by brooding and writing bad poetry. Militano’s protagonists learn that they must redirect their efforts if they want to achieve happiness, fulfillment, or love.
The short stories in Lost Aria are all told in first person, and the protagonists are really just different versions of the same type of person. Militano differentiates them by introducing different secondary characters and settings: a middle-aged woman in a public swimming pool; a young woman in a small family home; a university professor in an apartment in the city. The grieving young man in “Alex’s Funeral” stands out. Here, Militano explores a different kind of desire and nostalgia, rooted in friendship and not romance. The result is a short story that convincingly and sensitively addresses the passage of time and death, as well as how difficult it is to remember someone who has been gone for such a long time.
Nostalgia is a recurring theme in Militano’s work. “Clara’s Books” is tightly written and its wistfulness neatly book-ended with references to a mysterious photograph of a young woman – a student who lived with Gabe and his family the year his mother passed away from cancer. Militano initially positions Clara, a thoughtful, poetic medical student, as a whimsical, unreachable object of desire, before reminding the reader of her agency – she does not hesitate to accept a position at the University of Toronto, leaving behind both Gabe and his fumbling, lovelorn attraction to her. Clara becomes a fully developed character who reminds Gabe that his poetic sensibilities are admirable and authentic, but that they also leave him vulnerable to emotional injury and unable to form realistic expectations of the women in his life.
Perhaps, Militano’s greatest ability is to describe place and time, landing the reader squarely in St. Lazare, or in an empty graveyard, or on a cold riverside – “The Assiniboine River was not completely frozen. You could see the large dark open black patches of water. The trees along the bank were thick and inked against a blank sky.”
Militano artfully situates his male and female characters in time and place, communicating their losses and longings to engulf the reader. They interact in realistic and familiar ways in stories whose settings and themes are both imagistic and engaging. Heartbreaking, amusing, and hopeful, Militano’s vignettes remind us that none of us is exempt from the inexorable passage of time, and that the experiences that mark us are the ones that make us feel most alive.
Lost Aria is published by Ekstasis Editions.