Valente has a penchant for quirky writing, but even so, this story ranks among her more extreme ones. And I mean it in a good way. This short, but endearing and funny novelette, highlights the author’s skill with words and settings, as well as her perfect timing at delivering gut punches, only to soften them with gentle humor. Difference may not be for everyone, as it is wide open for interpretation, but if absorbed in one sitting, it will provide high entertainment value.
The narrator chronicles her life through a series of relationships with the space/time continuum. The continuum takes form of various people or objects (and so does the narrator, even though in different realities, which are never deeply explored). The non-linear story jumps between years or decades, as we slowly unravel some of the more important events in the narrator’s life.
It’s difficult to summarize a story when there is none. Or, better yet, it’s not fair to the reader or the author to flatten the story into a linear narrative when the little vignettes of the narrator’s life are seemingly deliberately scrambled. There is a definite beginning and ending, but anything in between seems random, and yet it has its own internal logic.
Instead, let me focus on the technical aspects of this writing. Valente seems to have been influenced by the prose of Kurt Vonnegut. In her more recent works, such as the 2021 short story The Sin of America, she employs Vonnegut’s signature nonsensical segues, to great effect. They soften the mood, flesh out the characters beyond what a short story ought to be capable of, and they make the reading far more entertaining. Here, Valente applies a slightly different approach. On one hand, Difference is full of nonsensical one-liners or shorts paragraphs, wildly deviating from the narrative. On the other, they don’t really flesh out the characters. They remain somewhat undefined, obscure at the time they are mentioned. Instead, these segues return to the narrative with impeccable timing: either to deliver an emotional punch, or to soften such hits. I found the story to be amazingly well crafted from this perspective.
However, focus on the technique leaves the narrative a little underdeveloped. Not in the sense that it has leaps in logic, but it feels more like a scaffolding than a finished building. There are wide open spaces where each reader can insert their own story. What is the space/time continuum? Is it a series of people the narrator falls in love with? Imaginary people? Or a universe personified? Is this a case of a wildly imperfect narration? The protagonist seems to be as imperfect and self-serving in her narration as Tetley in Valente’s The Past is Red. So, what is real in this story at all?
This leads to as many story interpretations as there are readers. Personally, I viewed it as a love story. A bittersweet life story about a daughter and her single mother who was the narrator’s only parental figure and best friend. About regret for abandoning the mother on her death bed, and about not being more present for her when she was alive. And about being able to forgive oneself for all that at the very end. Even though I’m nowhere near such a situation, I felt quite emotional in the second half of this story, but Valente’s perfectly timed returns of her previous segues made the text far more palatable.
That’s not to say I had nothing to identify with in the story. Killing house plants hit me like a hammer. Breakfast in America is an amazing album.
Difference needs to be read in one sitting. Otherwise, the segue boomerangs will miss their mark. Reading it all at one provides an hour or so of blissful, and for many also meaningful entertainment. This story should not be read as another take on time travel. It’s a personal redemption story, dressed as science fiction. Valente makes it perfectly weird, entertaining, and insightful at the same time.