The Upstairs People, by Laura van den Berg
Available here. Read it in about 20 minutes.
Thinking about time and structure…
This story begins in the present – one year after the unnamed narrator’s father died. Then, only three sentences in, we jump back, and the narrator details a strange dream about her father embodied in a dog, which she had the night he died. Then, we jump to two weeks after the dream, and a phone call from a neighbour. The phone call prompts the narrator to give us details about the people who have been living in the flat upstairs for some time with their dog. The story then continues, in the few days following the phone call, interspersed with flashes back to memories, thoughts and events both before and after her father’s death. We never do return to the present.
The dream may or may not be connected to the phone call, and the people upstairs, but the way the narrator links them in her narrative indicates something about her state of mind. For example, she says that it was the dream, rather than the death of her father, that has made her ‘start wondering about all kinds of things.’ There are other clues as to her state of mind, such as looking to her older neighbour to imagine what her own future might hold, and comparing herself to her sister. After the phone call, random memories are recalled, such as the narrator’s father either not remembering things he’s done in the past, or not wanting to talk about them. The fact that the memory is mentioned, again, links it to the post-phone call events. This is a character who has been prompted by grief to consider her life choices, mortality, and loneliness.
The narrator sometimes speaks to the reader, creating a bond between her and us: ‘I wish I could tell you that…’, ‘How to explain my relationship with my neighbor?’, and ‘That was the thing about being the child who moved away—you missed out on everything, except your own life.’ The language here is perhaps regretful, or melancholic, or full of longing, and she acknowledges that her life may perhaps seem a bit strange to us, the readers.
If we have a bond with the narrator, we trust her, and believe her. So, when she describes a strange scene upstairs, featuring the real estate agent, are we to take this at face value? The fact that the narrator immediately decides there is only one explanation for this scene, makes me doubt her. Or, is this an example of magical realism? Or perhaps the death of her father, the dream, and neighbour’s mention of ghosts, have implanted some strange ideas in the narrator’s head; we see mention of ghosts again as the narrator goes upstairs to the empty apartment: ‘the ghosts of paintings or photographs or whatever the couple had hung there’. I’m not sure how to interpret the scene, but I find the creepiness and ambiguity intriguing.
The story ends with another memory, of an item found in the narrator’s father’s desk, and an epiphany. I’m not sure how to interpret this either; I think the narrator has either found meaning where there is none, or acceptance that ‘no one knows how any of this works’, because she needs to, in order to be able to move on.
The use of time in this story, and the way things are connected through memories, ideas and events, is reminiscent of the way the mind works; the way we as humans need to create narratives in order to explain things, even if they are inexplicable.