Words Possessed: Ben Greenman’s What He’s Poised to Do

August 27, 2010 | 4 books mentioned 4 5 min read

coverIn his new collection, Ben Greenman obsesses over the self-referential terrain of old-fashioned paper correspondence. Greenman is a life-long letter-writer—apparently he sent his college girlfriend three or four letters each day—and the stories in What He’s Poised to Do reflect on the ways in which people communicate, or fail to do so, in addition to the self-revelatory benefits of letter writing and the growing importance of the hand-written word after “the death of words as possessions and the birth of words as currency.” There’s some kitsch appeal to the epistolary, but these stories engage a surprising amount of thematic and philosophic depth within the frame, retaining much of the strict form’s charm while jettisoning its artificiality. It’s a delicate balance these stories stake, between high-art and pop-art, between precise formalism and an almost folksy authenticity. These are stories about marriage “infected” with restlessness, about a Plains housewife trying to mitigate the trouble caused by overlapping small town love triangles, about a Nineteenth Century munitions inventor who hopes his own sorrow does not “poison” his daughter’s life. What He’s Poised to Do reveals the great potential letter-writing has to give a “fuller account” of our experience and emotions while compelling us to better understand the motives of those around us.

coverGreenman has previously published three short fiction collections and the novel Please Step Back, with nearly half of this collection released in 2008 as a limited edition, handcrafted letterpress package—Correspondences from Hotel St. George Press. His earlier work is largely humorous, with a focus on creativity, originality, and novelty, especially in relation to pop culture and its audiences. And what else would you expect from a ghost-writer to the stars (for both Gene Simmons’ Kiss and Make-up and Simon Cowell’s I Don’t Mean to be Rude, But…) who dallies in musical farce in order to, according to his web site, “puncture the famous for their peccadillos” by penning musicals about “famous buffoons and hypocrites” like O.J. Simpson, Sarah Palin, and Balloon Boy, and who dreamt up the Conceptual Art Registry, in which he would spawn ideas for conceptual art and then license the proposals to artists. Much of this comic work has been produced on behalf of McSweeney’s and the New Yorker, where Greenman is an editor. His fiction has also appeared in top-shelf literary venues like Zoetrope: All Story, One Story, and the Paris Review. Yet, while his work is certainly well-regarded, after reading What He’s Poised to Do, it’s almost baffling that Ben Greenman isn’t a full-fledged star. He exhibits such compelling mastery over the form and engages readers with compact, electrifying prose. Furthermore, the stories in this collection show an author reaching creative maturity. They are serious pieces treated with reserve and a self-deprecating melancholy. Things still get a little goofy at times—there are stories set on a suburban lunar settlement and a fictional borderland between Australia and India—but the focus remains on the characters and their desires and frustrations, rather than solely highlighting the author’s ability to create new and bizarre worlds from thin air.

In the title story, a man runs out on his family, off to a city where “he sometimes does business,” and is in the process of accepting the notion of himself as a betrayer. He writes postcards to keep his wife apprised of his emotional state—although he doesn’t always send them—and drinks at a hotel lounge. It’s here that he meets a young bartender with whom he initiates an affair, and, much to his exhilarated surprise, the bartender also communicates via postcards, leaving them on his pillowcase in lieu of enduring an awkward good-bye. When these two speak, their conversations are stilted and awkward, their voices “stiffly formal.” It’s as if the postcards provide a barrier that allows them to be comfortable with what they’re doing.

The stories in this collection often dwell on the distance between letter-writers and those who receive them, and that much of the correspondence isn’t received by its addressee seems somewhat beside the point. What matters is the letter-writing itself, that which gives sanction to the pen-holder’s yearning. The mail is official, it’s real.

At the end of “What He’s Poised to Do,” as the man waits in his hotel room for the bartender to return, he wonders if “he should greet her at the door with a postcard that lists all the things he expects her to do for him.” It’s clear by now that he could never verbalize his desire in this way. He also thinks that “he owes his wife another call, or at least another postcard.” The story stops with him sitting at the hotel room desk, pen held over a blank postcard, “uncertain exactly what he’s poised to do.” This story isn’t among the best of the collection but it does hit the right thematic notes in preparing us for what comes after. These are characters, after all, who need buffer zones. They write things like, “I’m not writing to you. I am writing to your letter.” These are people who require an extra distance from their emotions and the dark possibilities relationships hold. People like the narrator of “What He’s Poised to Do,” who are cheered by the fact that everyone has either betrayed or been betrayed by someone they love, and enjoy this “not for any reason other than the fact that it locates [them].”

In “Against Samantha,” a man falls in love with his future mother-in-law, Edith, via correspondence. Edith “liked to make witty remarks that seemed like mere decoration but gained substance under scrutiny,” and it’s her elocution that puts the narrator under a spell. “She was the smartest woman I had ever met,” he says, aroused by her immaculate letters, “and she was the mother of the woman I was to marry.” Even as his fiancée, Samantha, arranges a secret coupling with him, he cannot stop thinking of the girl’s mother, “who was at that moment sitting in her drawing room in London, innocently considering the recent declaration of Malta as a British dominion, entirely unaware of the fact that I was accessioning her daughter.” (The collection offers many knock-out lines like this.) He wakes gripped by a great fear the next morning—Samantha sleeping next to him—and allows himself to drift into what becomes a more comfortable reverie. He dreams of making love with Samantha, a pleasant fantasy that transforms the idea of marriage into something suddenly “less odious,” despite their actual sex having the opposite effect. Earlier in the story, the narrator admits that he anticipates his fiancée will turn into her mother one day, and in his dream she does exactly this. As he imagines sex with Edith, the narrator says, “I thanked Edith, and she threw back her head and delivered a laugh I can describe only as godly. I matched her laugh, there in the dream. Did I laugh outside it? Did I disturb the sleeping Samantha? I did not know and I was not about to surface and find out.” It’s the self-referential world that matters, after all. One that’s both comforting and revealing in surprising ways.

There’s a remove to these stories, this sense of maturity I refer to above. It’s an appreciation that the tough times, the indiscretions and temptations, are what make life memorable and worthwhile. As it’s said in “What We Believe but Cannot Praise,” “life is a bell with a crack in it, and yet its tone when struck is the nearest to perfection man will ever know.” These are not solely stories of misspent youth, although these are well-represented here, nor merely domestic stories of marriage and family, although there are these as well. In standout stories like “Barn” and “From the Front” and “To Kill the Pink,” and others, Greenman takes us from contemporary Boston to Forties Havana, from Nebraska in the 1960s to North Africa in the 1850s, and from the surface of the moon in the Eighties to suburban Atlanta five years from now. All the while, he crafts well-rounded and wise stories that never grow stale.

If you haven’t read Ben Greenman before, you should start. And do it soon. His is a dazzling, addicting talent that will draw you in and seduce you into experiencing a particularly odd sensation of belonging that only a traveler or émigré can know, one who is simultaneously comfortable and uncomfortable with a place, one who is there and not there at the same time. It’s as if you’d heard of these stories growing up, or actually lived in these places, and now can’t quite escape how those times have changed you in intractable ways.

's fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Best New American Voices, The Kenyon Review, Boulevard, The Cincinnati Review, and Flatmancrooked, among others. He was awarded a residency at the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts in the past year and his work was listed among the special mention stories in the 2010 Pushcart Prize anthology. Wheeler lives in Omaha with his wife and daughter. He is a senior fiction reader for Prairie Schooner.