About the Variations

by William L. Sullivan(This essay by the author appears at the conclusion of "The Oregon Variations." Click here to skip to an author interview with additional discussion points about the stories.)

Oregon is its own inspiration, but in writing this book I was also inspired by the symmetry of Bach’s Goldberg Variations and the loneliness of Franz Kafka’s short stories. I decided to attempt a fugue, using the structure of Bach’s music and the theme of loneliness to tell the story of a place and its people.

For my Oregon guidebooks I hiked every trail I could find in the state. I suppose I also spent that time plotting these tales.

Bach’s variations begin with a lonely aria. Then he inverts and shifts the aria’s seven-note theme in two cycles of fifteen variations. Along the way Bach uses all manner of musical styles, from dances to dirges. To match that structure, the Oregon Variations open with an “Aria for Tenderfeet” that states the theme in the second sentence. After that, the stories shift voice, point of view, genre, and setting in two cycles of fifteen.

I’ve even included a couple of modern fairy tales. “The Vortex” can be read as an updated version of Jack in the Beanstalk, with Amazon as the giant. On the opposite side of the variations’ cycle, “Beaver Clan” has an echo of Hamelin’s pied piper. But in this variant Beaverton is beset by an infestation of mall rats, rather than actual rodents. Either way, you have to pay the piper.

The first variation, the “Eastbank Elegies,” is actually a found poem. I simply wrote down the conversational fragments I overheard while strolling Portland’s riverfront path one sunny spring day. In musical terms it’s an overture, a medley of snippets from the tunes you’ll be hearing later.

Some of the stories contain elements of magical realism. In “Aria for Tenderfeet,” for example, Jack Dobson is astonished to find that his missing toes have regrown. But were they perhaps there all the time? The disability that trapped him on his ranch may have been psychological. Jake’s transformation recalls Kafka’s “Metamorphosis,” where the narrator awakes from uneasy dreams to find himself transformed into a giant cockroach. Likewise, in “The Starter,” is Gabby really an alien who reproduces by means of bread dough? Or is she a metaphor for the narrator’s recurring cancer?

The fifteenth story in this collection, halfway through the book, has no words at all. I simply offer two photographs of Crater Lake. I think that’s worth a few thousand words. And consider that the pictures are in opposite seasons, on opposite sides of the lake, at the opposite end of the variation cycle from a story about circling the lake in opposite directions.

Although each of the stories in the Oregon Variations can stand alone, together they might well seem to be an illusive batch—a hall of mirrors.

Perhaps mirrors are why our country is so lonely. Oregon’s stories can be as confounding as inside-out trees, houses with airy crowns trapped in heartwood walls; all the more reason for us to go back to the beginning and peer in the front door.