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.
“I blamed no one who’d looked in: a house that hovered over, exposed. They’d seen my table with the one chair scooted out and three pushed in, my bed unmade in half. My books that lined the walls, my upright piano. I kept it neat but didn’t dust — cobwebs another pleasure housewives wouldn’t understand.”
“Old Maid” from Man and Wife, p. 76
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.
Salinger was just 21 years old when he published his very first story, The Young Folks, a critical portrayal of a shallow college party. It was published in 1940 in Story, a small but reputable literary magazine that new authors turned to after being rejected by the likes of The New Yorker or Collier’s.
Salinger opens the story throwing poetic jabs at his characters, who are mingling with highballs and cigarettes in hand. Salinger describes Edna Phillips sitting in a big red chair, “wearing a very bright eye which young men were not bothering to catch.” Lucille Henderson “sighed as heavily as her dress would allow, and then, knitting what there was of her eyebrows, gazed about the room…” Salinger clearly does not think highly of this crowd, which he repeatedly points out includes a “small blonde” and “three young men from Rutgers.” Continue Reading →