Emma Straub’s Fly-Over State is a lovely little slip of a book, small in scale—it weighs in at 77 pages—but not in depth. I have a well-documented weakness for indie publishers, and Fly-Over State was published by one of the indiest entities I’ve ever come across: Flatmancrooked, an operation that began life as a fiction e-zine in 2007 and appears to have been expanding outward ever since.
The book was published by Flatmancrooked’s New Novella imprint, but it isn’t quite a novella. The book comprises two long short stories—or two shortish novellas, I suppose, depending on how one defines these things. It’s an interesting form. The title story concerns Sophie, the young and somewhat aimless wife of a professor. She’s marooned in Wisconsin—hence the title—when he accepts a job at a local college. The story is never condescending toward the state it takes place in, but Sophie’s departure from New York seems to have unmoored her. Sophie is a misfit who talks to shower curtains, the kind of person you’re talking about when you describe someone as being a little off. “What do you plan to do here,” another professor’s wife asks Sophie at a dinner party,
“while James is off molding young minds?” She tented her fingers in front of her, as though holding one of the young minds in her hands.
“Well, you can remove mold with any sharp knife,” I said. “Then you can just go ahead and eat it.”
There are loose thematic ties between the title story and Hot Springs Eternal, the story that follows it—loneliness; dislocation and alienation; the fragility of love—but the two sections of the book stand alone. Sophie is a slightly warped and deeply appealing character, but it’s Hot Springs Eternal’s Richard who I can’t stop thinking about.
Richard is on a roadtrip with his partner, Teddy. Richard is a serious man, calm and responsible. Teddy, five years younger, is not. Teddy is flighty and exuberant, uninterested in the things Richard loves—Paris, the symphony, poems—and unable to bring himself to pay attention to anything as mundane as housekeeping, for instance, or which day the garbage goes out. What does Richard love about him? “Teddy couldn’t be beige if his life depended on it. Instead of stupid, the word ‘carefree.’ The word ‘open-minded.’ The word ‘romantic.’ If he tried to phrase it for someone else, the vocabulary came more readily to his tongue.” The story aches with love and compromise.
These are sharp, perfectly rendered pieces, funny and beautifully written and deeply affecting. My only complaint about this book is that it ends far too quickly; I hope very much that Emma Straub will publish a novel someday.