After discovering Charles de Lint last year and re-discovering Ray Bradbury last fall, short stories are back on my radar. I’m starting to enjoy reading magazines like Analog and Ploughshares, but choosing a collection to dig in to is proving to be a struggle. I’ve tried to read some of today’s most successful short story writers – Junot Diaz, Aimee Bender and Karen Russell – but I’m not a fan. So when Jamie Quatro’s collection came out with its odd little cover and naughty title, I was excited to give it a try.
Lots of readers and critics love this book, so that was red flag number 1. Maybe I have bad taste in short fiction.
My reaction is mixed. Runners may enjoy the first story, ‘Ladies and Gentlemen of the Pavement’, about marathoning in a sort of bizarro universe where runners must carry a unique, sometimes heavy or enormous statue on their person during the entire race. It’s written like a race re-cap and focuses less on the struggles of completing a marathon, which the narrator is attempting to do for a third time, and more on the rules of bearing the burden of participating in an irreverent system.
Most of these stories are written in the first person with an egotistical narrator consumed by equal parts vanity and self-pity. Occasionally the tales dip a toe in absurdity and a few manage to have some heart, but the majority are style over substance. A few were written in the second-person, which made me put the book down for a while. Right now I can’t think of one author who’s ever pulled off second-person in fiction. I’m sure some must have, but I can’t think of any.
‘Here’ is one of the few stories I didn’t hate. It’s about a widowed father of two trying to move on shortly after his wife’s passing. They return to their usual vacation cabin filled with her presence. It’s one of the few stories of loss where “moving on” doesn’t mean boxing up the past.
At times the main narrator is a tough character to spend time with because much of that time is spent cheating on her husband, imagining cheating or briefly running away from her life to dance around in other people’s problems. In ‘What Friends Talk About’ she tries to describe the feeling of falling for someone else to this someone else:
It’s like this great darkening has taken place, she hears herself say. Like I’ve sucked the light out of the world and into myself, and only you can access it.
You see? The writing can pull you in, but once you get closer there’s nothing there. One of the more clever stories ‘Demolition’ is about a congregation watching their old stone church slowly fall apart. Pieces of the stained glass windows shattering is all it takes to re-energize their faith. They find they prefer worshiping with wind and light in their face. Then they make a leap in figuring may as well all worship in a cave! Without clothes on! In sexy positions! It escalates until the beginning’s intrigue fades and the whole story feels like an exercise from Creative Writing 101: Escalation.
My verdict is a thumbs down. Overall, I found most of the stories to be flimsy and often reiterations of this privileged blonde lady runner wondering if phone sex counts as cheating because she’s only looking for something “real”. I finished the collection because I’d put too much effort into slogging through the first bunch to not cross the finish line. At least it was relatively short.
Don’t let me dissuade you from checking it out, though. This book received a ton of glowing reviews.
Now back to me! Do you have any short story recommendations? I’m up for any genre… apparently the more unpopular the better if it’s contemporary.