By Katie Chase
Published 2016 by A Strange Object
There is no skimming with short stories, especially when they are so good they test you as a reader, forcing you to take a piece of information – maybe a single sentence or even a single word – and to remember it, to carry it with you until it makes sense and becomes useful. Each of the eight short stories in Katie Chase’s Man and Wife (A Strange Object, 2016) carries a palpable sense that all is not quite right in the world, as if the seams of normalcy threaten to burst, which they do. In each story you suspect that there are clues hidden just below the surface, and that if you just read closely enough, you would crack the code.
“Man and Wife” was included in the 2008 edition of The Best American Short Stories before debuting as the center piece of this collection of the same name. The parents of young Mary Ellen arrange for her to marry Mr. Morrison, contract and all, because “promising” a daughter to marry a much older man is normal, done with love and care. The story hovers between what is normal and perverse, until you wonder whether there is something just as perverse about those very things we consider normal; like how marriage is nothing short of a signed legal document; or how we obsess over weddings (buying flowers and dresses worth tens of thousands of dollars, though this detail is not mentioned in the story); or how “men talk business” while women bustle through domestic chores. You realize what is portrayed as perverse, a young girl being groomed and trained for an arranged marriage, is simply an exaggeration. Women are in fact encouraged to serve and to please, and for Mary Ellen, this means to cook, sew, polish silver and remain silent unless spoken to. I first heard this idea articulated by the wonderful Eve Ensler, who says this in her TED talk:
“I’ve been talking to girls for five years, and one of the things that I’ve seen is true everywhere is that the verb that’s been enforced on girl is the verb “to please.” Girls are trained to please.”
None of the characters react to the perverse because it has been normalized; just like in our own lives. This suggests that others’ behavior and attitudes, those of the group, should never serve as the litmus test for what is right, normal or good. As readers, we prove how quickly questionable things become normal, because as we are swept up in these alternate realities, what is perverse on page three feels less so on page nine, or at least less shocking, which suggests a dangerous pattern.
My very favorite story is “Old Maid,” so much so that I read it three times through. The cast is a handful of neighbors and the setting does not move beyond their homes, yet what results is a series of surprise revelations and sharp emotions, ultimately of heartbreak; it feels like a full-length novel. A single woman moves into a new house and becomes the de facto baby sitter for the neighboring families. Soon, one family moves away to be replaced by the A—-s (stylized like that and I think perfectly so), who are actually her former love and his new wife. There is a scene in which A invites the neighborhood boys to play basketball, but all of it is told from a faraway perspective, so we decipher what is happening through wordless gestures. The narrator observes, “The boys nodded in that ageless male manner of saying hello,” and it is one of those lines that makes you smile because you know exactly what it means.
The wonderful thing about a short story is that finishing it never feels like the goodbye of finishing a book. Once I am done with a book, I may never be back, but short stories are easier to revisit, less demanding of our time. Man and Wife has tipped the scales in that I am now officially on a short stories streak, and thanks to it, my expectations are high. Next up: Hot Little Hands by Abigail Ulman.
“Things you don’t believe in often exist anyway.”
So Much for That Winter (Graywolf Press, 2016) includes two novellas by Danish author Dorthe Nors, “Minna Needs Rehearsal Space” and “Days.”
“Minna Needs Rehearsal Space” is told in single sentences, one stacked neatly on top of the next. Such a format may appear to be restrictive, too rigid for storytelling, but in fact it reads as smoothly as the one-liners we scroll through every day; the headlines and status updates kindly packaged and delivered to our screens by the likes of Facebook and Twitter. Our thoughts, even our ideas, are inevitably shaped and molded by the platforms through which they are expressed. Therefore, we subject our thoughts to rules of expression that are increasingly governed by private media corporations. Let us hope that we are in good hands. “Minna Needs Rehearsal Space” rings familiar because we have been primed to consume text in this very way. Meet our protagonist’s ex-boyfriend, Lars, for example:
“Lars is a network person.”
“Lars makes the pigeons rise.”
“Lars has deadlines.”
“Lars introduced himself with his full name.”
These are declarations rather than subtleties, loosely connected though just enough. It is slightly unsettling that a few brief sentences allow us to become familiar with a person, or at least familiar enough to pass judgment, which we do. Perhaps we all run the risk of being summarized in a few sentences, as if none of us are as complicated as we like to imagine. But I think we are. And I think we run the risk of growing impatient of details and explanations, of reading anything of length, or of politely sitting through a friend’s long-winded story. Currently, we may prefer what is brief and to-the-point, but soon we may require it.
Of course, to assume that short declarations are inherently lacking in substance and meaning is entirely misguided. There is poetry, after all. Why use more words than necessary if one has the skill to pluck only those that are essential, to lay them out, arrange and serve to make the sharpest point. This is how we meet our protagonist’s nemesis, Linda Lund, whose assaults are as cruel as they are straightforward:
“Linda pulled out a mental machete.”
“Linda slashed a couple times.”
“Linda said, That dress will blend into the curtain.”
“Linda said, What’s your name again?”
“Minna almost couldn’t perform afterward.”
The story’s format also reveals how a single thought leads to the next, methodically and almost comically, as our minds continuously string together kernels of information:
“Minna’s gone for a walk in town.”
“Svaneke’s light yellow.”
“Svaneke’s a set piece, thinks Minna.”
The second story, “Days,” dives even deeper into a woman’s thought process as she chronicles her day-to-day in a series of lists. The trivial and the sacred sit side-by-side, so that in one moment she is thinking about the dentist while boiling eggs, and in the next:
“7. wrote a crucial note,”
“8. had an attack of vulnerability from the silence that fights back.”
I select every book I read as if it were some kind of momentous commitment, like I am in it for the long haul, so it is always a surprise when a book slips in to make its mark so quickly. If forevermore we are obliged to think in headlines and status updates, let us sound like Dorthe Nors.