“The Famous Torn and Restored Lit Cigarette Trick” is an early short story by Elizabeth Gilbert. In the story, Richard Hoffman expresses frustration that his daughter, Esther, is not a natural magician: “She’s pretty terrible. Too dramatic. She says, Behold! It’s terrible. Behold this! Behold that!” But it is Esther who ultimately saves the day and utters the very last word of the story – “Behold” – as her father realizes she is indeed “a most gifted young woman,” having little to do with sleight of hand.
“Behold” naturally stuck in my mind and for a few days I found excuses to say it, and imagined conversations in which I would dramatically slip it in. On one of those days, Imbolo Mbue’s Behold the Dreamers arrived at my front door, and you can imagine the meaning I assigned to the coincidence.
Behold the Dreamers (Random House, 2016) intertwines the lives of two New York City couples who represent vastly different versions of the American Dream. Clark and Cindy Edwards split their time between Manhattan and the Hamptons, a pampered life made possible by Clark’s prestigious position at Lehman Brothers. Jende and Neni Jonga live in a cramped apartment in Harlem, happy to have left their native Cameroon and desperate to build a new life in America. Jende is hired to be the Edwards’ chauffer, Neni their housekeeper, and the two become all-too-intimately involved in the crumbling lives of their wealthy employers.
In 2008, Lehman Brothers infamously filed for bankruptcy, unleashing an eerily endless ripple effect: “All through the land, willows would weep for the end of many dreams.” Countless lives were derailed, and Behold the Dreamers is a fictional take on that moment in recent history. There is one particularly endearing scene in which Jende and Neni jump around their living room and shed tears because Barack Obama has been elected president: “The son of an African now ruled the world.”
Dreams do not always come true, a lesson rarely imparted to children yet one of the first learned as adults. The American Dream, one of the grandest promises of all, is particularly vulnerable to falling short because it underestimates the impact of variables that are often impossible to control. For example, one of the issues the book examines is immigration, as Jende and Neni are under continuous stress that they will be forced to leave the country. When Jende loses his job and deportation appears imminent, the stress is palpable, leading to dark and highly questionable actions. Neni is depressed during the entire last stretch of the story, and the ultimate decision – to stay in America or return to Cameroon – is made by Jende and does not lift her spirits.
Of course, the ultimate lesson is not that to dream is futile. Rather, that if you persevere, a dream will continuously rearrange itself, mold itself to the conditions it encounters, and become real in a way you could not have even imagined. Perhaps such unpredictability is what keeps the magic in tact. Hence, behold the dreamers!
The Girls by Emma Cline (Random House, 2016) reflects the author’s fascination with Charles Manson and the girls who followed in his wake, but make no mistake, this is pure, mesmerizing fiction. The story centers on 14-year-old Evie Boyd, all too lonely and taken by the wild, tattered beauty of three girls she one day eyes in the park. She is unable to piece together their strange behavior, proof that she is far too removed from their universe to ever suspect the obvious truth, that they are members of a cult. Evie lives in Petaluma, a city within shouting distance of my own home in Sonoma County, and just about every Northern California city I know and love makes an appearance: Berkeley, Santa Rosa, Sausalito, Humboldt, Ukiah, Palo Alto and San Francisco. How strange to recognize the terrain of a story as that of my very own. Evie ultimately joins the girls on their rotted ranch where she meets Russell, the cult leader whom the girls obscenely worship, though Evie’s obsession curls towards 19-year-old Suzanne: “Her face could have been an error, but some other process was at work. It was better than beauty.”
The magic of fiction is felt in the instances that Evie runs into the girls, so perfectly timed, so serendipitous, allowing the story to make full, easy strides forward. Beautiful metaphors are abound, including “spare and empty as a coastal church,” “their hair streaming behind them like flags,” “her life like a TV show about summer,” and my very favorite: “Like royalty in exile.” Cline’s observation of girls is as fine tuned as a medical textbook, putting forward defining markers of girlhood:
“I waited to be told what was good about me.”
“At this age, I was, first and foremost, a thing to be judged, and that shifted the power of every interaction onto the other person.”
“It was an age when I often conflated liking people with feeling nervous around them.”
I wish such self-awareness had blossomed in me when I was 14, or perhaps had been nurtured in me by a wiser adult, throwing some light into the dark confusion of adolescence. But self-discovery is never to be dependent on others, and above all notoriously late.
Emma Cline is the literary world’s most recent darling. An article in the New York Times practically gushes that Cline “has long strawberry-blond hair, light-blue eyes and a habit of staring into space while formulating her thoughts.” How lovely. The Girls (her first book) caused a bidding war (won by Random House for a cool $2 million), and she’s under contract to write two more. I’m wary of the tendency to amplify a single voice, to idolize, to elevate one above the rest. Surely there are others who have spun words just as fine. Then again, at times, I understand this kind of frenzy that the publishing world orchestrates. The Girls really is that good.
Things feel familiar in Hot Little Hands — boys smoke cigarettes but taste like candy when you kiss them, girls tell secrets by flashlight at sleepovers, best friends go away to horse camp — and I’m not sure if they feel familiar because I’ve read them before, or simply because they are classic girlhood relics (an imaginary girlhood, not like my own but one of a more intrepid friend, or perhaps a really good book).
Hot Little Hands (Spiegel & Grau, 2016) by Abigail Ulman holds nine stories, all of them starring girls keen on making sense of their lives. The oldest is 27-year-old Claire, who in three loosely connected stories meanders San Francisco with friends who have painfully hipster tattoos, work at coffee shops, drink, have sex and well, hang out. In “The Withdrawal Method,” Claire learns she is pregnant, decides to get an abortion and then goes about the next few days bringing it up in conversation. A guy asks, “Are you really pregnant?” to which she responds, “Yep, for a limited time only.” Abortion is treated so casually, as a simple matter-of-fact, that it is in turn both refreshing and disturbing, at times hilarious. Abortion is a sensitive subject, often shrouded in so much secrecy and judgement, that to highlight it within such a light, funny, kind of aimless story feels different, and I like that. The setting is San Francisco, a city that a non-native like myself can never truly master so must seize every opportunity to learn more, like taking note of streets, neighborhoods and landmarks referenced in fiction. Elizabeth Percer’s All Stories Are Love Stories is another recent mini-lesson in San Francisco that I enjoyed.
My favorite story of this collection, “Same Old Same As,” is also perhaps the most serious. The story ends quietly, so when you reach it there is nothing to do but shrug and move on, though you really don’t want to move on. We meet ninth-grader Ramona in the middle of therapy discussing sexual abuse. The subject matter is difficult but handled in the pitch-perfect voice of a smart, blunt yet vulnerable teenage girl. Details are carefully doled out, hardly explicit. Reprieve comes from Ramona’s friends, who take her story of abuse seriously and treat her kindly in the way young girls do, bringing her cupcakes and making excuses so she doesn’t have to participate in class. The story makes it clear that it is the adults and institutions that fail her. The final scene has Ramona curled up on the couch watching TV with her family, including her step-father, meaning there has been no justice, no resolution, and it is quietly heartbreaking.
The best thing about every one of these stories is the ending, which may not sound favorable but in fact reflects how memorable each one is. Clean and tidy endings are rare in real life yet easy to expect in fiction, and these stories startle because they do not offer them. There are endings with last-minute plot twists that leave you bewildered, and there are endings that simply peter out, which are strangely the most surprising of all, as if we really do expect happily ever after, or at least closure. Instead, one moment rolls into the next, then the next, and then the next, until a day is strung together, a day-to-day, a life, a bunch of loose ends untied.
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.
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.