Justin Taylor has been called “a master of the modern snapshot,” and in his new collection of short stories, Flings, he lives up to the label. That’s good news and bad news.
Taylor, who previously published the story collection Everything Here Is the Best Thing Ever and the novel The Gospel of Anarchy, made a bold pronouncement on the eve of his new collection’s publication: “I don’t want to always write stories about the same kind of disaffected, angsty, youngish dude.”
At this he has succeeded, mightily. Flings has its share of disaffected, angsty, youngish dudes — those generic characters we’ve come to expect from youngish Brooklyn writers like Taylor — but to his great credit he has stretched himself in these new stories. In “Carol, Alone,” for example, we follow a grieving widow through her robotic daily routines in a middling south Florida retirement community. It’s told in the first person, which is one of Taylor’s strongest suits, but unfortunately it’s also told in the present tense, which is one of his weakest tics. Yet the story gets at something deep about the nature of grief. Here’s the insomniac widow, Carol, visiting her husband’s grave:
When Gerald first died I used to talk to him when I came here, bring him up to speed about our children and friends, the neighborhood – anything I could think of. But whatever this was supposed to make me feel, it didn’t, besides which I hated doing it. If Gerald is anywhere he can hear me, I figure then he probably already knows what little news I have to bring…And if he’s not anywhere, which is, after all, what we both always expected would be the case, then what am I doing recapping TV shows and mah-jongg winnings to a patch of earth?
The story includes a pair of vivid, linked snapshots: a 7-foot-long alligator slithers out of the canal and falls asleep in Carol’s back yard; and late one night she interrupts two teenagers making out on the spot where the alligator recently dozed. Like all the stories in this book, “Carol, Alone” ends without any major epiphanies or breakthroughs, just a lonely widow’s quiet resolve to remain connected to life. She does this by spreading food in her back yard, hoping to lure back her alligator, a presence so unexpected it hardly occurred to her to be afraid, a welcome shock. It’s a beautiful ending.
Taylor can be funny, too. “Sungold” is one of the strongest stories here, even though it’s about a disaffected, angsty, youngish, callow dude named Brian who manages an organic vegetarian pizza restaurant, a job that requires him to stand in front of the place wearing a gigantic fur mushroom suit to attract customers. The view from inside the sweltering suit “is like peering through the hair catch in a shower drain.” He notices that black teenage boys will cross the street to avoid coming near the giant mushroom, which inspires this riff:
Now I’ll grant you, a guy wearing a full-body fur mushroom suit to promote an organic vegetarian pizza pub is arguably the whitest thing to have occurred in the history of whiteness, but it’s not as though it’s going to rub off on them. It’s not like it’s contagious, like breathing the air around me will result in sudden loss of pigmentation, cravings for old Friends episodes, and, I don’t know, a Dave Matthews box set.
The owner of the restaurant is Ethan, a trust-fund fuckup, a blackout alcoholic cokehead smokehound who’s also bipolar. “Whenever I see a light on in the restaurant after hours,” Brian reports, “I knock on the kitchen window, find him rolling blunts at the salad station or deep-throating the spigot on the Jagerator.” He adds that “Ethan has the memory of an infant or a goldfish, which is why he’s such a shitty capitalist and such an amazing boss.” And when a sweat-drenched Brian is liberated from the mushroom suit and forced to wear a waitress’s plunging V-neck shirt, he fixes himself a stiff drink, “the logic being that if I’m stuck dressed like a sorority girl at a Phish show then I might as well drink like one.” Taylor must have been channeling Sam Lipsyte when he wrote this story, and, as with Lipsyte, the story leads to a small shred of realization that helps make Brian a more complicated and interesting person. And that’s enough.
The variety of characters in these stories is proof that Taylor has lived up to his pre-publication proclamation. We get college kids, teenagers, widows, single parents, grad students, waitresses, and 20-somethings with too much education, or not enough. Most of these characters are unmoored somehow, adrift, seeking something they can’t quite name. They’re also stuck.
In the collection’s title story, a group of college friends in Ohio relocate to Oregon for dubious reasons, with dubious results. Their driftiness and lack of grounding in the physical world makes them mere types, not fleshed-out characters. In “Mike’s Song,” a divorced father goes to a Phish concert with his two grown children while furtively texting his new lover, a story so creepy and uneventful that it’ll make you swear off the band forever. “The Happy Valley” is less a story than a diagram, and the prose describing Hong Kong fails to rise above the level of the Fodor’s guide the protagonist carries with her. The story doesn’t live and breathe on the page. Worse yet is “A Night Out,” which reverts to the annoying present tense and, for good measure, is narrated in the tricky second person. This story is everything Taylor claimed he was trying to rise above — a catalog of the predictable nighttime antics of a bunch of disaffected, angsty, youngish New Yorkers with too much money and too little direction. It reads like Jay McInerney Lite, and it’s a reminder just what a remarkable achievement Bright Lights, Big City was.
These stories are loaded with memorable snapshots, and that’s not a bad thing. But for a writer of Taylor’s wit and intelligence, it’s no longer enough. Here’s hoping he uses his many gifts to move beyond the snapshot and create something full-blown and grand, a panorama teeming with all kinds of characters who owe nothing to the world’s legion of disaffected, angsty, youngish dudes. With Flings, he’s moving in that direction. If he keeps pushing, I’m sure he’ll eventually deliver a big vibrant novel. I’m waiting, eagerly.