The Puerto Rican drag queen is a recognizable personification of New York in the 1980s, the neighbor (and opposite) of the white, Gordon Gekko-style master of the universe with his slicked-back hair. In The House of Impossible Beauties, debut novelist Joseph Cassara brings this stock character into the foreground in order to recognize her humanity and her history. Based on the figures associated with the real-life House of Xtravaganza, the first Latinx house in New York’s 1980s ballroom scene, the novel follows a family of queer characters of various ethnic backgrounds and sexual identities through the tumult and crises of that time and place. Cassara immerses us in a New York that we may think we know from countless other novels and films, but which is, in fact, significantly more complex (and more urgently relevant to us today) than previously imagined. I met Cassara last winter at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, where he was editing the final draft of the novel. He was kind enough to talk to me via email about the book’s origins, its political dimensions, and its composition process. The Millions: What first drew you to this milieu? How does Jennie Livingston’s 1990 documentary Paris Is Burning fit into the development of the novel? Joseph Cassara: I love the milieu of New York City in the ‘80s and early ‘90s. There was this perfect combination of grit and fabulousness. Like someone could spit in your face and you’d still be like, “Oh yeah baby, I’m in New Fucking York.” I love that as an aesthetic. So I grew up in New Jersey—not far outside of the city—but most of what I know about NYC was, by proxy, through my family who all hail from the Bronx and Brooklyn. I’m Puerto Rican and Sicilian, and I was always a quiet kid, so for years, I was totally into the music, the sounds, the rich linguistic rhythms of New York and the stories I heard them tell about the ‘70s and ‘80s. Then of course there’s the queer history aspect. I’m gay and I always feel sad when I realize how much of queer history is lost because it hasn’t been documented properly. Or it’s been purposefully erased. Now I realize that my modus operandi when writing is to try and resurrect queer stories and turn them into narratives that people can experience in a linear fashion, but when I first started writing this story, I didn’t realize it was going to be a novel. I had always loved Paris Is Burning and I thought I would write a short story that drew inspiration from the people we meet in the film. I was in my first semester of grad school at the time and I submitted the story for workshop. It was about 43 pages and my peers kept saying, much to my chagrin: no no no, this isn’t a story, it’s a novel, it clearly wants to be a novel. The documentary served as a launching off point. Angel, Hector, and Dorian are based on real people. Paris Dupree and Pepper LaBeija were also real people who have minor appearances in the book. The artist Keith Haring is mentioned very briefly. On the other hand, Juanito and Daniel are completely fictionalized. Towards the beginning of Paris Is Burning there are two boys—one has his arm around the other’s shoulder. One has a purple spot on his neck, probably a hickey. They look so young to me now. When I was 18 and watching the movie for the first time, their youth didn’t startle me as much as it does now. I always imagined their faces when I was writing Juanito and Daniel. TM: This is both a historical novel and a novel that takes a very specific subculture as its topic. What sort of research did you have to do to tap into the ball culture of 1980s New York? JC: I watched the documentary about a million times. It felt like the ultimate treasure trove—not only do the subjects talk to the camera, but we also see them in scene. Sometimes they contradicted themselves, which is so beautiful and human. I was fascinated by how many levels of performance were taking place. My goal was to study these moments in the film as closely as possible so that I could render something similar on the page with precision. One of the novel’s main concerns is how queer people of color navigate the spaces around them, so it was important for me to see their bodies on screen, moving around the world. Then there were the smaller things that came together to create the milieu. I curated an informal archive of photos. Some images had people from the documentary, while others showed the subway or the streets of NYC. For a while, I saturated myself in these images, sometimes as a way of justifying why I didn’t have to write that day. Like I could say, “Oh I’m technically not writing, but I’m being productive by looking at photos of telephone booths and people walking down the street in shoulder pads and this is research.” It sounds a little silly to say it that way, but I really think it helped allow my subconscious to run wild, which eventually helped my writing process. I’d also add small details to this collection, like what the Boy Bar matchbooks looked like, or the posters used to advertise parties at the Saint, or the comments people made about their experiences dancing at Paradise Garage. It was like a collection of primary sources that I used to inform my descriptions of the place and time. I interviewed some people when I could. For example, one of the characters in the book has dreams of becoming a dancer. I know very little about dance. I took Ballet 101 in college to fulfill a physical education requirement, and I learned many things about myself in that class, none of which are related to grace or flexibility. So I have a friend who is a very talented dancer. He was trained in the Martha Graham method and was one of the cats in Cats: The Musical. I took him out for lunch one day and said, “Tell me everything you know about Martha Graham. Obsess about her. Just gush. Talk to me with dance jargon I won’t understand. Just talk.” And so he talked and I stored it all to memory so that I could tap into it later when writing. TM: Did you have any reservations about writing transgender characters? It’s a community that has dealt with a lot of misrepresentation and misunderstanding, and we’re at a moment in the culture where there is an active discussion over who can tell whose stories. JC: I think that the role of the novelist is to deeply inhabit the lives of characters who are different than ourselves, to practice a radical empathy and honestly represent that on the page for readers. (Unless, of course, the writer practices autofiction, then it’s a different set of rules, but that’s not your question here…) I’m not trans, so I knew that when I was writing a trans character, I would need to make sure I was being precise and truthful, and not exploitative. My hope is that by approaching it this way, clichés and stereotypes wouldn’t even become an issue, because my intent was to take each character and treat them as the beautiful, nuanced, complex human beings that they are. Within the larger context of the novel, I wanted to represent various shades of gender and sexual identity, so there are various queer characters whose expressions range from fem to butch. I thought it was important to show that there are many ways to be a person, and they are all beautiful and worthy of love. [millions_ad] In terms of the active discussion that’s taking place, I think it’s great that the dominant culture, which is generally composed of straight, white people, is starting to have this conversation. And acknowledge their, to be frank, lack of imagination. Because for too long, they have portrayed people of color and queer people as archetypes, or props, or servants, or non-existent. We were never really seen as human beings with the potential for complex and complete character arcs, so my goal with this novel was to actively combat that. Of course, I had to utilize certain tropes because I’m writing in a certain medium and in conversation with a specific literary tradition, but that didn’t stop me from trying to inhabit and represent my characters’ humanity. Each of the characters in this novel is a complex human being with hopes, dreams, desires, a sense of humor, and we see them struggle to survive in a white, straight world that simply refuses to welcome them. TM: I was interested in how you handled gender in the novel. With characters like Angel and Venus, the narrator moves back and forth between male and female pronouns, depending on the circumstances. What was that decision process like? JC: In regular day-to-day speech, queer people will code switch their pronouns, usually for comedic purposes. It’s like a form of irony because everyone in on the joke knows who uses what pronoun and that the shift is taking place. Like when a bossy gay guy walks into the room and people are like, “Who does she think she is?” or, “Oh boy, there she goes again.” For example, whenever I criticize Mike Pence, I use “she” as an ironic way to subvert power because he’s very homophobic and would never approve of the pronoun shift. So my point here is that when pronouns shift, there’s a lot of implicit work that is being communicated on a linguistic level. In terms of craft, the pronomial shifts take place, for the most part, in the earlier sections of the novel, when Angel and Venus are respectively growing into their own. There’s a scene early on where Angel gets into a fight with her homophobic mother. Her mother demands that Angel take off the dress she’s wearing. When she complies, the pronoun shifts to “he.” I always thought of it as a moment where the form represents the content in a literal way. There’s an emotional shift that is also a shift in the language and it comes at a really distressing and heartbreaking scene. So much is contained in that pronoun shift. Later in the chapter, she’s talking to her brother, who she loves and feels comfortable around, and the pronoun shifts back. I think it’s a subtle and unspoken way of showing the reader what’s going on in her psyche in the moment. TM: I was struck by the sort of grim pragmatism of the people in this world. There’s a lot of prostitution, for example. Dorian, who is a role model figure for Angel, actively encourages would-be queens to sell sexual favors in order to support themselves. You don’t shy away from depicting these scenes, which can be pretty upsetting. Did that give you pause, in the writing process? JC: It didn’t give me any pause because I felt like those scenes were really important. So much of the book is concerned with the violence that is perpetrated against queer people of color. Those scenes were a chance for me to slow down and document it, to present the harsh reality of those situations for readers. There is no sugarcoating, just honesty about how these characters are treated in the world. For queer people of color, the statistics surrounding poverty, unemployment, HIV infection, drug use, murder, and suicide are so shockingly high. That enrages me because it’s not fair. But a statistic is a number, which feels distant, whereas a novel is a narrative that feels completely immersive. It’s much more upsetting to become attached to a character and then watch them deal with this shit because it feels more personal. TM: I thought the narrative voice was really wonderfully done. It’s generally a close third for whatever character is the subject of the chapter, and adopts a lot of the slang and speech patterns of the characters, as well as their logic and decision-making processes. It’s so perfect for this project that I’m wondering what your prose would be like in a book about different people, in a different world. Was this a voice that took time to find, in the writing process? Is it a hard one to get out of your head, now that the book is done? JC: I love voice on the page and I think a lot can be done on a craft level to inform our understanding of setting and characters by representing the cadences, musicality, and patterns of speech in the narratorial voice. What comes to mind are Toni Morrison’s Jazz, where the prose taps into the rhythms of jazz to evoke the sounds of Harlem in the early 20thcentury. Also, Junot Díaz’s Oscar Wao, whose narration has an energy that sizzles off the page and feels rooted in the speech patterns of the Dominican diaspora in New Jersey. I also love Annie Proulx’s Wyoming stories, because, my gosh, the voice in those stories feels so utterly of a specific place, it tears my heart into pieces. I’m always really excited when I come across narration that is very much borne out of the story’s setting and characters. It makes a book feel like everything is tied together in a way that feels integral. Everything is working in tandem to create the fictional world for the reader. It didn’t take me long to find the voice for this novel. It was actually one of the first things I discovered while writing. There was this explosive energy to it. It captivated me, but there were also moments where I needed to calm it down a bit because it was too much. I think I would eventually like to return to this voice in the future, maybe for a collection of stories, but right now I’m working on a novel that is set in a different time and place. It requires a completely different voice and tempo. I’m trying to challenge myself as a writer to see what I can do next, how I can grow. TM: Even though it’s set primarily in the 1980s, this novel feels pretty relevant to today’s gender identity politics. I’m sure that was something you had on your mind during the composition. Do you think a historical novel has any didactic advantages that a novel set today does not? JC: I didn’t really think about politics at all. When I was composing the book, I really was in a bubble. I was in graduate school in Iowa City, and anyone who has ever experienced winter in the Midwest can tell you that it’s frigid. There isn’t a whole lot to do there except write, so I was holed up inside my apartment or the library, in a literal and figurative bubble. I was very focused on the book and the characters and I felt like I had such a singular focus that I wasn’t exactly tuned into the regular world. As I describe that now, I realize that may not have been the healthiest approach, but that’s just how it happened. I tried not to let the outside world influence what I was writing. I say that about politics, but I also wasn’t thinking about the publishing world either. That would have stressed me out too much. I will also say that I’m not really interested in books that feel didactic. Maybe this is a generality, but didactic books don’t strike me as sufficiently complex because they already have a pre-set goal or point they want to get across. For me, the most interesting stories are the ones that don’t have any goals or points, they just show readers what a particular kind of life is like. As if the book is saying to the reader, “Well would you look at that? Ain’t that a sight?” So I didn’t have a didactic goal. I just wanted to have living, breathing, complex human beings on the page. And I wanted those characters to break the reader’s heart because their stories were tragic and unfair. Given our present political moment, with the new administration’s policies, which seem guided by Pence’s virulent homophobia and transmisogyny, I see our attitude towards, and relationship with, LGBT issues shifting. I also think that there’s been a progressive wave over the past decade to welcome our LGBT brothers and sisters into the mainstream and to acknowledge their humanity and stories. We’re at an interesting, if not anxious, point in time. TM: I’m interested in the social novel as a genre. They kind of go in and out of fashion. Do you consider this a social novel? JC: I kind of see this novel as fusion of two literary traditions: that of the American Family Novel, plus the lineage of 20th- and 21st-century queer narratives. This question about the social novel is a bit tricky to answer. It reminds me of a question I was once asked on a panel about politics and queer writing. The question was, “Are all queer stories inherently political? Is it possible to write a queer narrative that isn’t political?” Wow, goodness, I don’t know. I feel like—and forgive me for some of these academic terms—sometimes living life truthfully as a queer person of color in this predominantly white hetero-patriarchy feels like a radical political act in and of itself. Can any artistic work produced by queer people of color be apolitical, or is it by nature of its producer, infused with social critique? These are fascinating questions that I think about often, but I don’t think I have an answer for you. It’s like when a cereal company, or fashion brand, or department store, or what have you, airs a television ad with a same-sex or interracial couple—which is just representative of actual people and relationships in our society—they are treated like bold, transgressive political statements. Like, it’s a Cheerios commercial that is finally acknowledging the presence of people who aren’t white and straight. Are these ads inherently political, or does it only feel that way because of the environment that it’s created and received within? TM: Who were your influences on this project? What author, what novels? JC: I really love the Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar. He writes and directs all of his films and his aesthetic is very queer, very extra, very vulgar, kind of gritty, usually dark, and sometimes absurd. He’s a master. His best films taught me a lot about how to deploy humor and tragedy, sometimes in close proximity to each other. Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red and Carson McCullers’s The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter were two books that I read when I was just starting college that made me want to be a writer. Then there were the writers whose work I fell in love with. In no particular order: Virginia Woolf, Michael Cunningham, Miranda July, Junot Díaz, Colm Tóibín, Justin Torres, Edward P. Jones, Toni Morrison, Marilynne Robinson, Ann Beattie, Adam Haslett, Nicole Krauss, Joan Didion, Rivka Galchen, Jhumpa Lahiri, James Baldwin, Frank O’Hara. Finally, the teachers who influenced the way I approach craft, and whose work I also return to in awe: Karen Russell, Stacey D’Erasmo, Ethan Canin, Lan Samantha Chang, Paul Harding, Margot Livesey, and Yiyun Li. If any of those links were missing from the chain, I wouldn’t be the type of writer that I am today. And I look forward to a lifetime of discovering new voices and listening to the stories that I hear out in the world, when people open up and share their innermost secrets. I think that being a writer is so wonderful because we open ourselves up to the mysteries and wonders of the world. We can sit, observe, listen, and bring all of that into our fiction. It’s a beautiful way to live a life.
There’s a point late in Jen George's The Babysitter at Rest when an aspiring artist named Lee earns entry into an arts program held inside the Aqueduct racetrack during the offseason. While there, between cleaning concession stands and burying dead horses, she is expected to a complete one large art project each month. For her first month, Lee paints "Your Unceasing Fantasy Will Not Conjure the Desired into Being," “a series of one hundred watercolors depicting women in various states of longing/desire/dreaming/despair with their eyes slightly crossed, mouths mostly open, vaginas reluctantly dry.” Her instructor, known as “The Teacher/older man with large hands,” decrees that the work is “sexy as hell while being totally amateur and bad.” Lee soon ends up sleeping with him. This section of the story is bears the title “Early work.” This debut collection, out now from Dorothy, a publishing project, may represent George’s early work, though there is nothing amateur or bad about it. (Sexiness, of course, remains subjective.) The five stories contained within the book can certainly be seen as five portraits of women in various stages of longing/desire/dreaming/despair. They are creatively and sexually frustrated, subject to the caprices of men, machines, mortality, and other arbitrary powers. The opener, “Guidance / The Party,” is a diptych. The first section, told from the perspective of a woman, age 33, documents the arrival of The Guide, an angelic figure in heavy robes with illuminated skin and blindingly white teeth. Bursting into her apartment via a screened window overlooking the fire escape, The Guide informs the narrator that she has aged but not matured. The Guide (who is referred to always using plural pronouns like we and they) has come to prep the narrator for a party to mark the occasion of her transition into real adulthood. “You must send out invitations,” they explain. “Invitations are formal; guest show up having RSVP’d. People will most likely speak about articles they’ve read and restaurants they’ve been to. Regarding television, follow people’s cues so as not to let on how much television you actually watch. Avoid overtly solipsistic topics like childhood or family stories. Do not overshare.” The guide delivers the protagonist a thick manual, full of symbols she “cannot make sense of and lists of rules. Also, some questionnaires and a page of hygiene tips.” The story is formatted in much the same manner, with titled sections dedicated to subjects like Excuses, Friends/regret, Maintenance, and Stretches & such. Even as The Guide criticizes every aspect of the narrator’s life -- and takes naps, and gets drunk -- the narrator finds herself increasing attracted to The Guide, unsure of what she will do once The Guide departs. The second section covers the party itself. The perspective shifts to the third person: the narrator has become The Host, though the appellation seems an optimistic one meant to buttress the woman’s confidence. The Host has attempted to expunge her apartment of all trappings of immaturity, as per The Guide’s instructions. She has redecorated to suggest her own sophistication. She makes a 10,101-ingredient mole, which includes “liquefied frankincense and powdered rotten tooth that belonged to The Host, hand ground with a jade mortar and pestle.” As the guests show up (none of them actual friends, so as not to risk the presence of emotional baggage), The Host attempts to remain calm, though she frequently escapes to the kitchen to pretend to “check the oven.” The story is a catalog of the ways in which a person can feel inferior to her peers, never confident in how or why she is living the way she is, but certain that she’s doing it completely wrong. The other tales in the collection feature similarly vexing scenarios in which the protagonists are made to squirm before an unsympathetic universe. In “Take Care of Me Forever,” the hospital-bound narrator is diagnosed with increasingly unlikely disorders of the body and mind. With her impending death presumed, she is forced to sacrifice her dignity for the benefit of medical education and the art projects of her various physicians. In “Futures in Child Rearing,” a woman thinking about having a baby seeks answers from a prognostic ovulation machine only to receive responses such as “You will never be able to pay off your credit card debt” and “Get outside and/or a life.” In “Instruction,” which follows the students laboring at the Aqueduct racetrack, The Teacher’s growing obsession with Lee affects an entire generation of artists. In the wonderfully Gothic title story, the narrator comes to consciousness in a seaside town. She lives in a house with five roommates, and works at a newspaper office where she suspects she is being continually demoted (what begins as a desk job becomes more and more janitorial). She meets Tyler Burnett, the owner of the town’s chemical plant and scion of the local aristocracy, who is three decades her senior. Burnett lives in a house that is slowly falling into the sea with his artistic wife and his infant son. The son is a “forever baby,” who does not age. “It is a curse to have a forever baby,” Burnett tells the narrator. “The baby will never inherit my property, my good looks. I thought the point of having a baby was so you could age and die. You could be released after cursing someone else to this existence. With this baby sealed in infancy, I fear I may live a very, very long time.” The narrator soon becomes both Burnett’s lover and the infant’s babysitter, a web of relationships that causes her some confusion. “Tyler Burnett buys me a stuffed animal, a pony. ‘What will you name him, child?’ Tyler Burnett says. ‘Pony?’ I say. ‘Wonderful, child. Excellent. You’re a beautiful child.’ He gives me a bag of candy from the grocery store and pats me on the head. At times, I forget if we’re lovers or if he’s my father. He does not feel like a father.” The narrator must also contend with a stalker, a dying roommate, and a recurring bout of arson at her home. As in “Guidance / The Party,” she is constantly navigating the space between childhood and adulthood, weighing the expectations of men and society against her own instincts. This incongruity between the narrators and their respective worlds forms the collection’s throughline. One might expect the protagonists -- each rational in her way -- to crack under the complete irrationality of her circumstances. (After all, isn’t that how a normal person would respond?) But these characters do not crack. They check themselves. They adapt. They mold to the expectations of their environments. For this, as the reader realizes, is how things actually are: even when humans are confounded by the illogic that surrounds us, we rarely respond with logic. Instead, we become illogical, so as to meet the world on the same terms. Such is the way that individuals survive. The collection remains faithful to the Dorothy aesthetic: books that are not only strange and inventive, but strange and inventive in ways that distinguish themselves from each other. Within that family, George’s surrealist comedies are perhaps most reminiscent of Joanna Ruocco’s endlessly digressive (and marvelous) novel, Dan, published by Dorothy in 2014. Broad comparisons to Aimee Bender and Alissa Nutting might also be made, but George’s motley presentation and aversion to explanation mark her as a truly distinctive voice. Her frank dystopias have the charming eccentricity of Edward Gorey illustrations. They do not rely on beauty or brutality or humanistic appeals to sell themselves. Just a vision and a ghoulish sense of humor.
There’s a wonderful short story collection out now called Pond by Claire-Louise Bennett. It’s something of a linked collection, in that the longer stories that make up the bulk of the book all seem to be narrated by the same unnamed woman, formerly of England but now living in a cottage in the west of Ireland, doing not much more than letting her mind wander as she probes the confines of her modest home. These stories do not build upon one another in the sense of creating a continuous plot. Rather, they offer separate investigations into the life of this woman, self-contained and comprehensible in any order. What’s more, between these longer stories sit pieces that might be described as “micro” or “flash” fictions, which are not set in the cottage and are not clearly narrated by the same woman. These shorter pieces are aesthetically linked to the longer stories -- the entire book is written in the same distinctive style of prose -- but are otherwise unrelated. The reading experience is unusual and illuminating, and upon completion I thought to myself, “Wow, what a lovely little collection of stories.” I was flummoxed, then, to discover that there is some confusion as to the book’s genre. Meghan O’Rourke’s review of Pond in The New York Times Book Review appears under the headline “A Debut Novel Traces a Woman’s Life in Solitude.” Novels appear to be O’Rourke’s only points of reference for Bennett’s work. She writes that Pond reminds her of “the kind of old-fashioned British children’s books I read growing up,” and “David Markson’s avant-garde novel ‘Wittgenstein’s Mistress’...” In another review for The Times, Dwight Garner acknowledges the short story-ness of Bennett’s book even as he insists that the work is a novel: “‘Pond’ is a slim novel, told in chapters of varying lengths that resemble short stories. There’s little in the way of conventional plot.” Hmm. If I didn’t know any better, I’d think Garner was describing a short story collection. This phenomenon of misidentifying a story collection as a novel is surprisingly common, both in book reviewing and in polite conversation. A number of people seem to use the term “novel” as a synonym for “book,” and because of this I sometimes see even works of nonfiction referred to as novels. (I won’t call anyone out on this point, since it’s really quite embarrassing.) More often, the word “novel” is applied to collections when all of the stories within feel strongly of a piece (and consequently are favorites of the creative writing workshop). The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien is one example. Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson is another. The Emigrants by W. G. Sebald is a third. To be fair, these works frequently fail to identify themselves with the word “stories” on their book jackets (as does Pond). But a reader with the most basic sense of literary genre should be able to see them for what they are. A novel and a short story collection are very different forms. A novel tells one long narrative. It cannot be divided without surrendering its functionality. Sometimes it is segmented into chapters or sections, but these cannot (at least not all of them) stand alone as shorter independent works. They rely on each other for coherence of plot and theme. A collection, on the other hand, is composed of several shorter, discrete narratives that can stand independently of each other without forsaking their coherence. The order in which you read them is not essential to understanding them, nor would it matter if you read three at random and never looked at the rest. In the hands of a skilled author, it is sometimes true that a group of these stories may become more than the sum of its parts. The stories may act as vignettes in the life of a person or a community, and in so doing produce a sense of immersion somewhat reminiscent of a novel. We call these “linked collections” or “story cycles.” But they are not novels, nor are they attempting to be novels. (A “novel-in-stories,” as you’ve probably suspected, is purely a marketing trick.) When reviewing a linked collection, a reviewer will sometimes (bafflingly) simulate confusion as to whether the book is a collection or a novel or something in between. (Ian Maleney, in his review of Pond for The Millions, says that the book, “rests with no little charm somewhere between collection and novel without ever settling on one or the other.” Nice try, Maleney.) These reviewers often like to pretend that the author has somehow invented a third genre. But you and I aren’t so easily fooled, reader. We know that there is nothing new under the sun. As James Nagel points out in his 2001 book The Contemporary American Short-Story Cycle, the form has been with us for a century at least. Works like Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, Jean Toomer’s Cane, and Ernest Hemingway’s In Our Time presented a cohesion of intent that, at the time of their publication, tempted reviewers to insist that they must be more than simple collections of stories. (In Our Time even contains interstitial shorts between longer stories, just like Pond.) Nagel writes: [T]he fact of the matter is that the short-story cycle is a rich genre with origins decidedly antecedent to the novel, with roots in the most ancient of narrative traditions. The historical meaning of "cycle" is a collection of verse or narratives centering around some outstanding event or character. The term seems to have been first applied to a series of poems, written by a group of Greek writers known as the Cyclic Poets, that supplement Homer’s account of the Trojan war. In the second century B.C., the Greek writer Aristides wrote a series of tales about his hometown, Miletus, in a collection entitled Milesiaka. Many other early classics also used linked tales, Homer’s Odyssey, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the Arabian A Thousand and One Nights among them...Throughout these early works two ideas became clear in the concept of a cycle: that each contributing unit of the work be an independent narrative episode, and that there be some principle of unification that gives structure, movement, and thematic development to the whole. Perhaps because the average reader prefers novels, encountering few story collections (or none at all), a linked collection is enough to give him pause. But a linked collection is still a collection and not a novel, just as a tall man is still a man and not an ogre. Our most prestigious American literary prize, the Pulitzer, recognizes this fact. Known for its first three decades of existence as the Pulitzer Prize for a Novel, it was renamed the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1948 so that it could be awarded to a debut author named James A. Michener for his Tales of the South Pacific. That book is a linked story collection, though the Pulitzer jury might have gotten away with pretending it was novel if Michener hadn’t conspicuously placed the word “Tales” right in its title. Since then, short story collections have been eligible for the award, though to date only six others have won it. (For the sake of comparison, there have been seven years since 1948 when no prize for fiction was awarded at all.) It may seem defensive or pedantic to insist on these designations. Why does it matter? I hear you ask, reader. Books are just books. No one is saying one form is better than another. All things being equal, perhaps that would be that case, and a book’s genre would be so nonessential as to not require specification. But things, of course, are never equal. It is far easier to publish a novel these days than a collection of short stories, so much so that many pragmatic writers have essentially abandoned the form. Fantastic short story writers end up spending their careers producing middling novels, and our literature is poorer for it. So in those rare cases when a short story collection does manage to be published (and reviewed, and sold, and read by a large number of people), to deny that collection its genre -- to call it a novel, as though the world really needs another novel -- is to rob the medium of short fiction of a hard-earned victory. Even more nefarious is when publishers themselves mislabel collections as novels. Printing the word “novel” on a book cover makes it very difficult for malcontents like me to argue that the book is anything otherwise. Tom Rachman’s excellent 2010 book The Imperfectionists is a collection of 11 self-contained stories following various employees of an international newspaper based in Rome. Only the thinnest of interstitials about the history of the newspaper (again, like In Our Time) provided cause for Dial Press to term the book “a novel.” Also published in 2010 was Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, which Knopf called “a novel” but which I like to call “the most recent short story collection to win a Pulitzer Prize.” The book’s shifts in point of view, style, tense, and time period caused reviewers to marvel at what a unique and unusual novel it was, though such shifts are common in the genre of the short story collection. Egan almost certainly benefitted from the book being called a novel, but now that the dust has settled and the prize money has been spent, it’s probably in Egan’s best interest that posterity regard the book for what it actually is. Goon Squad is a bad novel, but it’s a phenomenal short story collection, one that perfectly embodies Nagel’s notion of “independent narrative episode[s]” linked by “some principle of unification.” (Plus, thinking of the book as a collection is the only way to make that 70-page Power Point section look like a fun narrative experiment instead of a saccharine bit of self-indulgence. Take that, Egan!) Both The Imperfectionists and A Visit from the Goon Squad were bestsellers, and I certainly don’t begrudge Rachman or Egan their success. What is painful is the notion that the audiences of these books did not realize that they were enjoying story collections. The publishing industry is constantly telling short story writers that their work can’t sell, but instances like these seem to suggest that the publishing industry is not particularly interested in fostering an appetite for short story collections among its readership. If you liked Goon Squad, then you like short fiction, but you may be unaware of that fact because you think that you read novel. It’s refreshing, then, when an author resists the urge to have his work mislabelled as a novel, as Junot Díaz did in the case of This Is How You Lose Her. In an interview with Gina Frangello at The Rumpus, he explains: [T]here’s little question that short stories, like poetry, don’t get the respect they deserve in the culture -- but what can you do? Like Canute, one cannot fight the sea, you have to go with your love, and hope one day, things change. And yes, I have no doubt this book could have been easily called a novel -- novel status has certainly been granted to less tightly-related collections of stories. By not calling this book a novel or a short story collection, I guess I was trying to keep the door open to readers recognizing and enjoying a third form caught somewhere between the traditional novel and the standard story anthology. A form wherein we can enjoy simultaneously what is best in both the novel and the short story form. My plan was to create a book that affords readers some of the novel’s long-form pleasures but that also contains the short story’s ability to capture what is so difficult about being human -- the brevity of our moments, their cruel irrevocability. I disagree with Díaz’s premise that the book represents a new, third form (This Is How You Lose Her is a simply another linked story collection, in the proud tradition of the many linked story collections that have come before it), but you get the point. A linked collection does things that a novel does not, things that are worthy and vital and capable of standing on their own merit. A collection replicates the chaotic, fragmentary messiness of life in a way that a novel can’t: life, which doesn’t follow one large narrative but seems to be the aggregate of many smaller ones. A day is not a chapter. A day is a story, with its own peculiar conflicts, themes, motifs, and epiphanies. There has been much in the past few years to inspire confidence in the idea that the short fiction collection might finally attain the readership it deserves as a indispensable American art form. This Is How You Lose Her was a New York Times bestseller and a finalist for the 2012 National Book Award. In 2013, George Saunders’s Tenth of December repeated both feats. The 2014 National Book Award was given to Phil Klay’s collection Redeployment. In 2015, it went to Adam Johnson’s collection Fortune Smiles. Collections by Nathan Englander and Kelly Link have been finalists for Pulitzers in recent years (though both failed to attain the lofty heights of Michener’s and Egan’s). Alice Munro’s 2013 Nobel Prize felt, for many writers of short fiction, like a long overdue nod to a worthy form and its incorrigible practitioners. And yet short fiction collections remain incredibly difficult to sell. They remain under-published, under-reviewed, and under-read. Aspiring authors are encouraged to set aside their stories and get to work on something longer, lest they be condemned to the periphery of publishing, out in the brambles with the poets and their chapbooks. Even George Saunders, the story writer who famously does not write novels, is writing novels now. Perhaps Claire-Louise Bennett is glad to have Pond called a novel, and I should stop making trouble where trouble needn’t be made. But if the best hope for a short story writer is that reviewers and readers mistake her work for a novel, than fiction has reached a truly dispiriting place. Perhaps novelists will soon be hoping their work is mistaken for memoir, and fiction as a concept will disappear entirely. I guess we’ll see. In the meantime, I encourage you, dear reader, to go to your local bookstore and pick up a copy of Pond, or any other short story collection, and free yourself from the tyranny of sustained narrative. You’ll enjoy the experience. Trust me. And maybe, while you’re in there, you can hide a couple novels behind the cookbooks.
A minor lapse in comprehension caused me to believe, for about the first half of this collection, that I was reading a book called Imitations. I liked that title (though the actual one, Intimations, is more than adequate), because it struck me as slyly self-aware, particularly when applied to an author’s first story collection. (Kleeman’s debut novel, You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine, was published last year to great acclaim.) Writers learn to write stories by imitating their influences, and Kleeman’s collection is more mindful than most when it comes to sampling the various traditions of American short fiction. The book is divided into three sections (which promotional material describes as “birth, living, and death,” though that is an oversimplification). The first offers a set of surreal stories that feature characters floundering under the expectations of others. In “Fairy Tale,” the narrator might be describing a dream: she is at a dinner with her parents and a man who claims to be her fiancé, though she does not recognize him and feels no attraction to him. As the story proceeds, more and more men show up at the table, each claiming to be a boyfriend or lover or paramour, and the pressure for the narrator to choose one leads to increasingly extreme scenarios. In “The Dancing-Master,” the eponymous instructor is goaded by the village philosopher into teaching a feral boy to dance like a proper gentleman: “Portesquieu would claim that this is impossible, that a body cultivated in the wild assumes the essence of wildness, turns swampy and will not admit of the growth of more refined habits. But with my labor, I prove him wrong: my wild child dances the minuet on command, as well as several other current dances.” The dancing-master achieves his pedagogical aims through use of a rod. When left to his own devices, the poor wild boy much prefers to chew on whatever objects are available. In their cold, fantastic minimalism, these first stories recall the work of Aimee Bender or Robert Coover (whose lengthy blurb, given its own page at the beginning of the book, functions like an oddly self-referential epigraph). Section two begins with a suite of stories following the trials of a woman named Karen. “I May Not Be the One You Want, But I Am the One For You” finds her attempting to write a profile of a humane dairy farmer shortly after breaking up with her boyfriend. She meets a German man in a cafe and the two begin an awkward flirtation. “Choking Victim” flashes forward half a decade, when Karen is now married to an architect and the mother of an infant daughter. She attempts to acclimate to life in a new city, but finds she is forever at odds with her surroundings. “Jellyfish” skips back to the day the architect, Dan, proposed to her, while on vacation at a resort in a developing country where the seas are plagued by blooms of jellyfish that unnerve the swimmers. These stories are naturalistic, if quirky: more Rivka Galchen than Bender. Kleeman proves herself an skilled conjurer of familiar life. In “Choking Victim,” Karen observes the hacking cough of an unseen neighbor: “The coughing continued, louder and more urgent. It grew and solidified simultaneously, like a skyscraper seen from an approaching car.” The section ends unexpectedly with “Intimation,” a nightmarish parable where an unnamed narrator finds herself trapped in a dynamic house with a man who seems to think that they are in a relationship. Though the story reverts to the surrealism of the first section, after the three Karen stories it is difficult not to read this narrator, too, as Karen (or a version of Karen), and to interpret the story not simply as an allegory for marriage in general but for Karen’s marriage to Dan (or her awkwardness with the German). What’s more, the piece invites the reader to think back to the stories in section one, particularly “Fairy Tale,” and insert Karen into those narrative as well. Like an avocado pit surrounded by malleable flesh, the Karen stories orient the pieces around them, providing the reader a notion of center. The third section is more similar to the first than to the second, though categorized less by anxiety than by full-blown desperation. In “Fake Blood” a woman arrives in costume to a non-costume party, where her bloody outfit is construed by the other guests as evidence of a murder mystery game. Their belief in such a game causes people to misinterpret the real murders that begin to occur, even as the narrator attempts to convince them otherwise. The disjointed vignettes of “Rabbit Starvation” use the conceit of fluffy whiteness to explore the existential horror of aberration and loneliness, from a cotton ball sorting facility to accounts of Robert Falcon Scott’s fatal South Pole expedition to the thoughts of a person trapped in a room full of rabbits: “Stack the rabbits. Number the rabbits. Place a fingertip on the nose and stroke from forehead over spine to the tip of its adorable puff. Regret and regroup. Enumerate the possibilities. Write messages in the sky.” The final story, “You, Disappearing,” is a dystopian tale of a world laid waste by the incremental disappearance of objects: apples, trousers, magazines, parts of Ferris wheels. “Nobody thought the apocalypse would be so polite and quirky. Things just popped out of existence, like they had forgotten all about themselves. Now when you misplaced your keys, you didn’t go looking for them.” But pets disappear as well, as do people, memories, even entire concepts. The narrator is unnamed, though she is in love with an architect. They are unmarried, without children, torn apart by the disparate ways they react to a world in which the disappearance of all things is inevitable. “There had been times,” the narrator writes of her boyfriend, “when I thought I might be with you indefinitely, something approaching an entire life. But then when there was only a finite amount of time, a thing we could see the limit of, I wasn’t so sure. I didn’t know how to use a unit of time like this, too long for a game of chess or a movie but so much shorter than we had imagined.” The story is perhaps the collection’s strongest, benefiting not only from the intimacies of this unnamed couple, but from the accrued emotions of all that has come before it: the lives (or potential lives) the reader has lived with Karen, lives which will not occur in the world of this final tale. It is interesting that Intimations should appear so shortly on the heels of the American publication of Claire-Louise Bennett’s Pond. Though the books are largely dissimilar, they both take well-established strategies for giving a novel an innovative kick and apply them to the medium of the short fiction collection. (Some reviewers have referred to Pond, which is composed of self-contained short stories, as a novel. They are mistaken. Mislabeling a linked short story collection as a novel does a disservice to both forms.) In the case of Pond, Bennett adapts the accumulating, knot-of-language aesthetic used successfully in the works of David Markson and, more recently, Eimear McBride. Kleeman, on the other hand, is working in the surrealism-neighboring-naturalism tradition of preceding wunderkinds like Téa Obreht and Jonathan Safran Foer, where sections of dreamlike allegory supplement sections telling the primary “real life” story. These tropes, when employed by novelists, have grown to feel quite domesticated over time, anchored as they are to book-length narratives that mostly guarantee a sense of progress by the end. In applying them to story collections, Bennett and Kleeman have essentially thrown out the instruction manual, allowing the reader to assemble whatever larger narrative they are able, knowing it will be incomplete and that there may even some parts leftover. Save for a few standouts, the stories are not as strong, individually, as their original publications (The New Yorker, The Paris Review) might suggest. Several pieces obstruct more than they aid in explication. At 40 pages, “A Brief History of Weather” is a collection within a collection, divided into titled sections that follow a family’s attempt to create a house immune from and absent of any weather. It feels like Kleeman’s attempt to create her own Cooverian fragmentary epic (à la “The Gingerbread House” or “Seven Exemplary Fictions”), but the motifs are a bit too spasmodic and numerous (games, Russian dolls, unattributed quotes, an invented twin) to add up to anything coherent. The ethereal “Hylomorphosis” reads (purposefully) like a piece of 16th-century angelology that, while initially promisingly, refuses to solidify into anything digestible for mortal readers. Even the Karen stories are rather unexceptional when removed from their context in the book. Cumulatively, though, the collection offers an experience that is more surprising and, in some ways, more provoking than that of a standard collection composed of better stories. Kleeman is masterful at the sentence level. At the book level, she is ambitious and inventive. Once she works out the interstitials, she’ll be spawning imitators of her own.
Toward the middle of Rion Amilcar Scott’s debut collection Insurrections, in a story called “Juba,” a black man in Cross River, MD, is arrested on the way to a job interview. He is later released with a tepid apology. It turns out to be a case of mistaken identity: the police are looking for a drug kingpin named Juba, to whom our protagonist bears a slight resemblance. As angered as this man is for the inconvenience (he misses his interview and doesn’t get the job), he is also intrigued. He makes it his mission to track down the near-legendary drug dealer, upon whom he begins to project a preternatural significance. He is right to do so: when he finally meets Juba, the famous fugitive is living an unexpectedly monastic existence, trading bags of weed for snippets of slang that he uses to translate the Bible into the local vernacular. Juba explains that the people of Cross River are losing their distinctive patois as they try more and more to sound like white people. “We done lost our tongue,” he tells the narrator. “Some shit I got to say to you, I won’t even try to say ‘cause there ain’t no words for it. I got to use more words than I would have to use if we had our language back. I got to speak slowly so you understand me, even though we from the same place. Ridiculous, but it ain’t your fault. I’m trying to complete the Cross River tongue.” It is tempting to read Juba’s explanation as an ars poetica of sorts for Scott, who goes to great lengths to establish the anomaly that is the fictional city in which his stories are set. Cross River exists at that intersection of reality and alternative history. It was founded by the survivors of the only successful (and yet curiously obscure) slave revolt in American history, led by a man known only as Ol’ Cigar. It remains predominantly black to this day, divided into the bougie Northside and the more impoverished Southside, the latter of which is subject to routine and extreme flooding whenever the rains fall heavy. The city is home to the historically black Freedman’s University, as well as three notorious crime families (the Jacksons, Johnsons, and Washingtons). It boasts its own local sound, called Riverbeat, as well as its own local demonyms (either “Cross Riverian” or “Riverbaby,” depending on who you ask). It sits in close proximity to Port Yooga, Virginia, but also to the Wildlands, a swathe of undeveloped wilderness populated by madmen, wolf hunters, and escaped zoo animals. That all might sound like worldbuilding worthy of Karen Russell, but Scott’s fiction is mostly absent of fabulism and whimsy. A few of the stories operate as satire -- “Party Animal” describes the reverse evolution of a young man from the debate team to a state of forest-dwelling ferality, and the very brief “Klan” involves a surreal psychology experiment on the campus of Freedman’s -- but most of the book exists firmly within the realm of naturalist fiction. In “202 Checkmates,” a young girl learns to play chess from her unemployed father, who patiently instructs her in the application of the game’s lessons to real life, even as he celebrates every victory with pentecostal zeal: “He jumped and shuffled across the floor like the Holy Ghost had slithered up his pant leg.” The girl’s losses quickly reach triple digits, but she nevertheless manages to figure out those life lessons, even some that her father has yet to realize. Another story, “Confirmation,” follows thirteen-year-old Bobby in the weeks leading up to the sacrament which will (as he understands it) usher him into adulthood. He isn’t devout so much as curious, with questions regarding Jesus’s whiteness (“Damn negroes want to make everybody black,” opines his mother) and the true sinfulness of his masturbatory habits. His pastor and parents are unwilling to offer him many answers, though that doesn’t save him from having to make a Christ-like sacrifice for the sake of his sober father. These stories, told from the viewpoint of children, are among the strongest in an uneven collection. The pieces that deal more directly with the mythology of Cross River generally do so to their own structural detriment. Stories like “Everyone Lives in a Flood Zone” and “Razor Bumps” are derailed by their interest in esoteric local lore or power structures. In the latter, an amusing piece about a barber who has lost his ability to cut hair is subsumed by a subplot about a rapper, who relates to the rest of the story only in that he’s currently being blamed for the death of a police officer that the barber once knew. The text of the story features recurring excerpts from an interview with that rapper which, while echoing some of Juba’s ideas about Cross River’s exceptionalism, do nothing to elucidate the central mystery of the story. By the time a conclusion is reached, the plot has moved so far away from its principle tension that it elicits no emotion from the reader. Similarly, the final story, “Three Insurrections,” forces a rather opaque Cross River-centric framing device over what is otherwise a story about a Trinidadian immigrant’s experience with the King assassination riots in Washington, D.C. Its Cross River material -- which involves a mysterious book, a prophecy, and some unlikely family migration patterns -- is the story’s weakest aspect, distracting from an otherwise compelling rumination on racial resentment and political violence. Scott is an impressive ventriloquist, adopting a number of disparate narrative voices over the course of the book. He offers many brilliant lines (“I’ve never been one to watch weather reports. It’s more honorable to take the weather as it comes”), and writes about race, fatherhood, lust, and envy with estimable candor. Perhaps he is stuck, like nearly every artist, between what he knows how to do and what he hasn’t yet mastered. He knows how to write a small, realistic, domestic story. Neither chess nor the sacrament of confirmation are terribly fresh metaphors in 2016, but he can work them into narratives that satisfy. And yet his prose feels most alive when he’s pursuing those images and plot twists tied to the minutia of his created world, even if their thematic importance to the story at hand remains cloudy. What does it mean to rewrite the Bible in slang? And how does that redress the sting of police profiling? An answer is there, perhaps, though it has yet to find its fullest articulation. The world of Cross River feels larger than one book, and Scott may intend for Insurrections to be the first volume in a long investigation of that city. For now, the collection feels like a miscellany of early works grafted imperfectly onto a rigid frame. (Which is fine. Many debut collections are made this way.) Scott’s imaginative capacity is prodigious, and his fictional world feels vast and riotous with potential, but Insurrections is ultimately less successful, perhaps, than the rebellion from which it takes its name.