Elephants in Our Bedroom

Elephants in Our Bedroom is Polish American fiction writer’s Michael Czyzniejewski’s first collection of stories, and reading them one wonders why they have not been gathered together sooner. They are powerfully imagined. Czyzniejewski, editor of the Mid-American Review, has the true story-teller’s gift. He can take the most mundane topic and put a magical spin on it that makes one realize that most people—even in their wildest moments—are not thinking half as imaginatively and wildly as this author is. This imaginative playfulness brings to mind the great Polish modernists of the first half of the twentieth century, writers like Witold Gombrowicz and Bruno Schulz.

Let me give some examples from Czyzniejewski’s Elephants in our Bedroom. His first story in the collection is entitled “Wind.” In it, he asks the reader to consider the following: We feel the wind every time we go out, we watch it moving the tree limbs or picking up a piece of paper and scooting it down the street, but what if suddenly people realized that they could not explain the wind, that all the old explanations did not make sense? And then there is the story “Green” where instead of proposing a typical summer vacation, the main character’s husband invites her old lovers over for two weeks “just to clear the air.” Or how about the title story “Elephants in our Bedroom”? In it a young man wins an elephant in a card game and decides to keep it in the bedroom. That is wild. But what is wilder is that his wife does not say anything about it.

The stories in his collection have the sort of postmodern magic that we used to see in writers like Robert Coover or Donald Barthleme, but Michael Czyznie-jewski makes that magic new again by spinning it in the everyday world, the familiar world, of children and husbands and wives, of city streets and schools and libraries, bedrooms and kitchens and backyards. In this way, I believe, he comes closer to his sources in Polish modernism. Also, Czyzniejewski’s Polish American background comes out in these stories. He has the immigrant’s gift, the alien’s gift, for looking at what most people take for granted and seeing it in a completely different way.

He is a second generation Polish American, and one gets the sense reading his stories that he came from an area that was still tied to the old ways, tied to seeing the world outside the neighborhood as strange and foreign, alien even in a sort of comic way. And reading about his life bears this out. He grew up in the predominantly Polish American Chicago suburb of Calumet City and attended St. Andrew the Apostle School and Church, where the nuns and priests all spoke Polish. He often served a Polish-language Sunday Mass as an altar boy. In college, Czyzniejewski studied Polish for two semesters before the language, as he says, “soundly defeated me, though I did expand my Polish vocabulary from 12 words to nearly 30.”

The imaginative, postmodern stories included in Elephants in Our Bedroom have appeared in such magazines as Story Quarterly, Quarterly West, and Another Chicago Magazine.

John Guzlowski
Eastern Illinois University (emeritus)