The Agony and the Agony: Suzanne Rivecca’s Death is Not an Option

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In “None of the Above,” the final story of Suzanne Rivecca’s Death is Not an Option, out in paperback this week, we are told that protagonist Alma has “unknowingly bumbled into the terrible and debased presence of God, gone to seed.” The statement is an acknowledgment of the perverse suffering that has prefigured the ending of this collection, as the young women of Rivecca’s creation are forced to cope with trauma from their girlhoods in relentless, Sisyphean cycles. Her heroines are eye-for-an-eye Catholics—lapsed or soon-to-be lapsed—whose vengeance inverts into masochism. On the surface, none of her characters appear to be the products of poisoned environments. They come from solid families and go to good colleges; they demonstrate precocity, if not outright intelligence. But something has gone terribly wrong. Whether it’s because of sexual abuse or an anxiety disorder, or both, these young women have fully inhabited the dark side of middle class entitlement.

If you follow the prize circuit for literary writers, you’ve probably come across Suzanne Rivecca before. She’s been featured in numerous year-end anthologies and honored with Stegner, NEA, and Radcliffe fellowships. Death is Not an Option, her debut, was recently a finalist for The Story Prize, losing out to Anthony Doerr’s Memory Wall, and was featured on more than a few prestigious “Best of” lists. Even a cursory glance at her fiction leaves no doubt as to how Rivecca has earned such a pedigree, as she is a significant talent. There’s no questioning her wit and power on the page—and among her many gifts is the ability to craft some really knock-out, drop-dead last lines, the kind of parting shot that makes you want to flip back and retrace the steps that led you to such an astonishing place.

The collection begins with the title story, which tells of a retreat for the graduating seniors of a small parochial school in Michigan and deals with a clique of girls who direct their considerable venom inward. Emma, the focus here, is generally mistrustful. She is well-versed in SAT-prep guides and fluent in teenage girl quirkiness, but these qualities prove to be poor substitutes for maturity. The woodsy retreat is meant to bring her closer to her classmates during their finals days together, yet Emma becomes even more isolated. In fact, she’s unable to tell anyone that she will attend Brandeis in the fall because the mere mention of moving on to college causes her to break down sobbing.

The story comes to its crux with Emma alone in the forest, in the grip of a crying episode, when a figure emerges in the dark. For Emma, every fear and joy of her life has led to this “terrible and piercing culmination.” Her expectation here speaks to so much of what’s to come in the collection. She’s a character who waits with bated breath for bad things to happen. She anticipates malady. Emma isn’t raped, however. Her sobbing is heard by a future military academy cadet—a boy who “will grow up to either pass conservative legislation or pump gas.” He wants to counsel her through the episode, but Emma can’t accept his help. There’s no remedy for the final mundane days of high school.

As the rest of her classmates come together joyfully in one final group ceremony, at the end of the story, Emma withdraws into a vision of her destiny: “I see terminal therapy. I see myself drowning in a sea of dark progressive heads just like my own, collapsing upon a beautifully manicured campus topiary like a soldier falling on his sword. I see a counselor with a poly-blend twinset and deep circles under her eyes, and I see myself going to her every day and talking about my fucking feelings and how I cannot thrive in any but utterly hostile circumstances.” And, in what follows, we too will see these things.

Of the more vital stories in Death is Not an Option is a two-part narrative titled “Very Special Victims.” In “Good Samaritan Points” we are given the story of a young girl, molested by her uncle, who is unable to find acceptance and a sense of identity after the fact. Kath’s parents rush at her when she tells them what happened, “necks thrust out, faces red, not blinking, their voices rising as they spat questions at her until she burst into tears with the knowledge that she had damaged everyone’s life in some irreversible and unfathomable way.” No one knows what to do with Kath. The priest and nuns at her school, her relatives, they’re all equally at a loss. She wants to make them feel better but doesn’t know how to do this, because “soft tones of voice and direct eye contact, the wheedling seduction of these tiny kindnesses, undid her.” Eventually Kath discovers her own body, and thinks that “she must be falling in love with herself.” She finds “soft places that had never been properly heralded: the warm silky expanse of abdomen, the inside of the wrist with its tender blue marbling of veins and its matchstick bones.” She moves her hand under her shirt and is “moved almost to tears by the chamois softness of her torso.” And then, continuing the devastating logic, Kath realizes, “This is what he liked.” She tries to reclaim her body from her abuser by understanding its sexuality, its realness, and its value.

In “Uncle,” we rejoin Kath decades later. As an adult, she dates men who, once they learn she was molested, “treat her like the burial site of an ancient civilization.” Her boyfriends suggest self-help books, they speak in psycho-babble and mistrust her considerable libido. Kath tries to impart that the abuse “did not define her.” She’s become a woman who struggles with intimacy, who masturbates compulsively, “in the artless prodding way of a food craving,” and loves novels with women who “lived in reduced-but-genteel circumstances and drank thrice-steeped tea and spoke with dispirited eloquence.” Kath still finds ways to blame herself for what happened, remembering how she’d been able to make herself come by age four and had never been ashamed of “her orgasmic aptitude.” She wonders if “the furious, murky attentions of the uncle were the unspoken consequence of her precocity, like blindness and hairy palms,” or if they were the cause. (Rivecca has a particular knack for placing her characters in spots that not only threaten their physical safety, but also represent self-betrayal.) More than anything, it exasperates Kath that an abuser can isolate “what he did from what he was” and then go on with life. She can’t do this. Her body is the scene of the crime.

It’s hard to find fault with any of these stories, as they are all exceptionally strong pieces. Yet, the collection tends to hit the same note over and over, in content and theme, and it’s possible that, despite being significant works, these stories have more power as individual pieces than they do as a whole. Emma tears up at the end of the title story, but only with the outward appearance that she has learned to value and accept her classmates. “Very Special Victims” shows how the echoes of abuse are unending, and that the victim must ultimately face them alone. In “Look, Ma, I’m Breathing,” another standout story, we’re presented with a confessional memoirist who doubts that any other subject will interest her as much as her own life. She refers to her works as “testimonies of harm,” an apt description for each story in Death is Not an Option. All of these stories feature female lead characters of nearly identical background, a few of them take place in eerily similar apartments. These are almost exclusively abused women pushed to the brink of an emotional breakthrough that’s just out of reach. There are no reconciliations for these masochists and pathological liars, these confused and abused children. In the end, there is only a tentative understanding of what has happened, despite a fierce will to face what comes after the abuse.

The Trouble Starts Early: Marcy Dermansky’s Bad Marie

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The title character of Marcy Dermansky’s tantalizing second novel Bad Marie is a quintessentially modern anti-hero. A smoker, a drinker, an adulterer. She curses in the company of small children. She gets a little drunk at work. Marie is the guilty pleasure personified, a trickster set loose on bourgeois morality and tact.

An attractive young woman who often touts her breasts as her most prominent if not best feature, Marie constantly calculates how other women measure up to her. She’s also a convicted felon. (She aided and abetted a bank robber named Juan José, who was her lover at the time.) Released from prison on her thirtieth birthday, she quickly reconnects with a childhood friend, Ellen, who hires Marie to serve as nanny to her “precocious” two year-old daughter, Caitlin. We’re told from the start that the arrangement “would have been humiliating had Marie any ambition in life. Fortunately, Marie was not in any way ambitious.” Don’t believe it, though. Marie’s ambitions are just more devious than those of most people. Conversely, her friend Ellen is a successful New York lawyer. She has an amazing apartment, a refrigerator stocked with tempting food, an angelic daughter, an exotic French novelist husband name Benoît Doniel. It’s via Ellen’s life that Marie gains access to most of her guilty pleasures—chocolate, whiskey, inane cable movies, long baths, the seduction of a married man. Marie is the type of person who can’t help but give in to guttural desire in ways that would shame most people beyond words.

The trouble starts early, when Marie is discovered passed out in the bathtub with Caitlin. Even while Ellen berates her, the seduction of Benoît Doniel begins. Naked in the tub, Marie opens her legs “not a lot, just enough” and locks eyes with him. Before the week is over, Benoît joins Marie and Caitlin for long daytime baths—a precursor to the rendezvous with Benoît in his and Ellen’s bed while Caitlin naps. Marie falls in love with Benoît, or she falls in love with the idea of him, a man she sees as “the world’s most attractive, underappreciated living French author.” Unsurprisingly, it isn’t long before Marie and Benoît rush onto a flight to Paris, running off with Caitlin secretly, illegally, Ellen’s credit cards footing the bill. Marie convinces herself that Ellen’s sense of entitlement makes it okay to do these things. “Ellen really thought she had it all: happiness, a family, security.” But this was all before Marie arrived to take her down a peg.

Marie believes she’s found a kindred soul in Benoît. Unfortunately for her, she has. He’s just as bad, if not worse, than she is. It’s this twist that forces her to grow up. She starts off feeling very adult on the airplane. After all, she’s packed “juice cups and diapers, organic string cheese” for a toddler. She doesn’t yet know about the hundred things Caitlin will need in Paris that she forgot in New York. Benoît even admits that “this will all end badly” when they’re on the plane. But he does nothing to stop it. His ennui seems romantic at the time, and Benoît a prisoner of fate. However, even before they make it across the Atlantic, Marie begins to learn that his acquiescence is not an endearing symptom of their love, but an albatross. Their tryst in Paris is quickly undercut by the responsibility of caring for a small child. It’s all id, for both the adults and the child, and it can’t last long like that.

Dermansky offers a satisfying portrayal in Bad Marie of what it’s like to be blissfully at the whims of a toddler—to win by losing, by giving in. Marie is only really happy when she’s with Caitlin, strolling in the park, bathing, napping, eating mac n’ cheese. There’s so much real affection between Marie and Caitlin, as they struggle and grow together like real families do, that one almost forgets how ineffably wrong it is what Marie’s doing. In many ways, it’s the fulfillment of the life she imagined for herself before her life with the bank robber turned terribly wrong, before prison. Her life with Caitlin, though, isn’t sustainable either. Marie doesn’t have enough money to keep going for long. And, of course, Caitlin isn’t actually her daughter.

There’s something about Marie that drives her to places where she doesn’t speak the language, where she’s baffled by the culture, and this says a lot about her. She’s lost, sure. But she had a chance at a future once too, she’d done well-enough in college, before she became irreversibly bad, before she fell in love with Juan José. Marie can’t help herself, and that’s compelling and endearing. Above all else, it’s tragically human. Even when she doesn’t want to—especially then—she flees from safety, the angel-haired Caitlin on her hip. We know she’s doing wrong. That’s the obvious part. But we also see the denied potential in Marie, the unrequited love. She’s been shit on her whole life, so it’s kind of satisfying to see her fight back, even if she does so via the reckless endangerment of a small child.

That being said, it isn’t hard to imagine a narrative counter to Marie’s, one from Ellen’s perspective. Something you might see on Dateline or 20/20. A successful woman robbed of her child by an envious girlhood friend, the babysitter, and a dusky, adulterous foreign husband with an overly indulgent name. Ellen is a teary, rueful presence that shadows Bad Marie. For as much as Marie needs Caitlin, it’s still Ellen the girl begs for, not Marie. Time and again throughout the novel, Marie is forced to realize this. She fantasizes about Ellen’s pain, Ellen jealousy. She wants to make Ellen hurt, but she can’t do this without also hurting Caitlin.

A film critic, in addition to being an engaging and witty prose stylist, Marcy Dermansky has confirmed the heavy influence of film on her work—stating in the endnotes that Bad Marie was her “attempt at writing a French movie.” The echoes of characters and plotlines are clear. Bad Marie can easily be pictured as French New Wave without the saccharine music, or a more contemporary French thriller like Tell No One or Right Now. We have pseudo-artists, stylish, artful, uncompromising, unutilitarian; an obsession with how people take on and transform identity at will, and how they suffer the consequences of metamorphosis; the juxtaposition of wealthy Paris celebrities with suburban mediocrity and obscurity. The stylized smoking, the promiscuity, the junk food. Bad Marie is satisfyingly familiar in these ways. What’s even more interesting is that Dermansky has never really spent much time in Paris, a “long weekend” she mentions in the endnotes. One of the reasons that this Paris is so familiar to a fan of French cinema is that it was written from the memory of a connoisseur of French cinema. And as such, Dermansky doesn’t exactly offer a sycophantic view of Paris. It’s gritty, it’s dangerous, it’s sometimes boring—the city, not the book.

In the novel, Marie is disappointed by this realness. She wants a Champs-Elysées from an advertisement, not the genuine article. “You think that if you ever go to Paris,” she explains to Caitlin, “that [going to the Eiffel Tower] is one thing that you have to do, and then when you get there, boom, you don’t want to. The appeal is all gone. You’re left with your own taste of bitter disappointment.” It’s when Marie moves past the disenchantment of her life that she shows real growth. Some maturity is salvaged from the ashes of regret. This is also why Caitlin is the most important supporting character of this pleasurably dark novel. If it wasn’t for the little girl who Marie has to care for, then she could just leave. She could cut her losses and take off. With Caitlin counting on her, with a child’s very survival in her hands, Marie has to gird herself and find a way to make things work.

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

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In 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.

Greenman 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.

Crude Satire: Teddy Wayne’s Kapitoil

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In his debut novel Kapitoil, Teddy Wayne follows the astonishing and short-lived career of Karim Issar, a self-taught computer programmer from Qatar who arrives in Turn-of-the-Millennium Manhattan to work on a Y2K debugging project for an equity firm. The main plot conceit is that Karim has to study things like idiomatic language and social protocol in New York because he’s a foreigner—and that this unusual perceptiveness allows him to “predict events that other people consider random accidents.” Using this talent, Karim designs a program called Kapitoil that analyzes the media coverage of terrorist attacks in order to predict crude oil futures with frightening accuracy. He realizes that Kapitoil leverages political violence for financial gain but moves ahead with the program anyway, and as a result becomes a rising star at his firm.

Karim convinces himself that his actions are free of moral consequence—“this violence will happen with or without my program,” he says—and it’s out of this assumption that the driving conflict of the novel derives. The story is imbued with a pre-9/11 ignorance that Karim is caught up in. So while he’s able to believe that his profiting from the deaths of others cannot make that faraway suffering worse, we readers are skeptical. He works in a World Trade Center office, after all, and we know what’s going to happen in the coming years. Nonetheless, it’s that Karim attempts to find a balance between morality and profitability, to straddle both sides of his ethical predicament, that gives Kapitoil relevancy.

Much of the first half of the book is used to engage him in the self-indulgent pleasure-seeking that his Muslim upbringing rallied against. We see Karim getting drunk in nightclubs and hooking up with fast woman. More or less, he begins to resemble the two coworkers who lead him on these misadventures. Jefferson and Dan are the kinds of Ugly Americans who are easy to parody, and much of the novel’s fun is at their expense. It’s only later that Karim really reconsiders the new path his life has taken, when he falls in love with his one sensible coworker, Rebecca, and begins to better understand his role in the world.

Most of Wayne’s previous work is under the banner of satire and farce, with numerous credits in The New Yorker, the New York Times, Esquire, McSweeney’s, and on Comedy Central, so the lampoons are expected and expertly performed. But he also shows a sure hand in depicting the sincere musings of Karim, an earnest character who identifies throughout the book with Tom Joad, because like Karim, Joad “attempts to provide for his family and has strong values, and he has an intriguing way of speaking to boot.” Channeled through his first-person narration, the writing is heartfelt and genuine in its humor. As Rebecca tells him: “Most people here, their conversations are intellectualized middle-school sarcasm. They’re just trying to prove how intelligent or cool they are. You’re not like that.”

Combined with his status as an outsider, Karim’s guilelessness allows him to observe American culture with limited bias. No remark is forced coming from him because, as a programmer, he’s hardwired to observe deeply and note conclusions—an organic premise for the narration that plays well in the book. And most importantly, when Karim struggles over the moral ambiguity of the program he’s created, his authenticity allows for a more open exploration of the issue at hand. When he convinces himself to proceed with Kapitoil, it isn’t as a cover for underlying greed but an extension of a healthy ambition to better the lives of his sister and father.

Of course, there’s an imbalance in the system that doesn’t allow honest pursuits like this to actually happen. This is a world of limited resources, of bloodshed and tough decisions. The novel seems to be telling us that no one can just run a computer program and blindly profit from its calculations. There are real consequences to everything, especially when it comes to making money.

Karim struggles to admit this to himself throughout the book and it isn’t until his little sister is a bystander in a terrorist attack back home in Qatar that Karim is finally forced into seeing the predatory nature of his own actions—when he personally profits from violence that injures the beloved he’s charged with caring for. In the end, Kapitoil boils down to Karim’s interior conflict of family, nationality, and religion playing against romance, profit, and hedonism. And because of the type of character Karim is, there really isn’t much doubt which side will win out.

The principal disappointment of Kapitoil is that its flat secondary characters aren’t able to challenge Karim—besides Rebecca, his coworkers are incurable cads who stumble into an endless string of faux pas, even failing to wash their hands after using the bathroom—and they leave Karim two-dimensional in important ways. In fact, not even his billionaire boss proves to be much of an obstacle, and most of the Americans he meets are self-deluded and provincial despite living in cosmopolitan New York. It’s fairly obvious from the beginning that the predatory nature of American capitalism is the target of satire here, and while Kapitoil doesn’t disappoint in this aspect, there’s often the sense that it’s a fixed fight. The targets are too easy. The betrayal, the conflict, the revelation—it’s all in Karim and his thought processes, rather than being wrung from the plot. His chief fault as a character is that he’s too successful, that he can dictate his own trajectory, and this is something that can cause the plot to wear thin at times.

This is largely a novel of voice, however, and it’s the steady cadence of Karim’s algorithmic narration that makes Kapitoil worthwhile. Teddy Wayne is an author of many gifts—notably his smooth, effortless prose—and he’s written a timely, self-assured book that offers its reader many rewards.

Reckless and Dangerous: Justin Taylor’s Everything Here is the Best Thing Ever

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The teenage and twenty-somethings who people Justin Taylor’s Everything Here is the Best Thing Ever face many impediments to happiness, and principal among these is debilitating self-obsession. Taylor depicts a generation raised on video games and cable-news politics, a nation where alcohol abuse and sexual discord are the main rites of passage. There’s a sense of entitlement that clouds the vision of his characters and blurs the boundaries between sex and love, faith and religion, politics and art. And while there is some hope that pervades many of these stories, the sense that this hope can ever be rewarded is conspicuously absent. To these people youth is merely an aggregation of disappointment and failure. Even among the characters who more or less get what they want, it’s suggested that there are no real winners here. As the narrator in the story “Tetris” makes clear: “This game is designed to end, not to be beaten.”

Although this is his first published collection of short fiction, Justin Taylor has also published a book of poems, compiled an anthology of apocalypse-themed literature, and guest edited an issue of McSweeney’s in which he compiled the symposium “Come Back, Donald Barthelme.” Taylor is a thinker well engaged in post-modern literature, tied particularly close, one would think, to Barthelme. However, while Taylor’s work clearly owes a lot to Barthelme, Everything Here is at its best when veering off on a more distinctively original course, relying less on Barthelmean pastiche and more on traditional tropes. The stories longer in length and narrower in scope are the ones that shine the brightest, balancing cleverness and poignancy. Taylor certainly has a talent for linking potent images, through which his affinity for Barthelme shows, and he often indulges a sincere touch with common people and the tragedies of their lives. In stories such as “What Was Once All Yours” and “Somewhere I Have Heard This Before” and “A House in Our Arms” and “Tennessee,” Taylor is at his absolute finest.

In “Tennessee” we see a familiar trope combined with a modern twist—it’s the return of the prodigal son, but this version features a family of transplanted South Florida Jews, forced by layoffs into moving to a suburb of Nashville. This relocation allows for an exploration of identity struggle within a familiar and traditional structure. There’s a father who cleans compulsively to establish a sense of self-worth after losing his job, a brother who smokes cigarettes to punish his parents for migrating, and a narrator, Daniel, who struggles most of all to establish an identity within his family. As Daniel says early on, “We were Hannukah-and-lox Jews, not the Kashrut-and-Shabbos kind,” and being able to tactfully wield social symbols is an important skill he apparently lacks. After a night of drinking, Daniel is asked to take the virginity of his brother’s best friend Dara before she leaves on a trip to the Middle East—a request that reveals the anxieties of their historical moment as opposed to those of previous generations. “I don’t want to die a virgin,” Dara explains, revealing her eschatological fears to Daniel. “Like if I did get blown up on a bus or something. I’d have never even known what [sex] was like.” Unlike their grandparents, this generation of Jews isn’t afraid of dying in the Holocaust or a Pogrom—they fear car bombs and terrorist attacks. By the end, the plot anxieties of “Tennessee” aren’t really resolved, but the philosophical points are at least connected by the impending sexual act, exemplifying how the fear of apocalypse is passed on.

Most of Taylor’s characters are unremarkable, the kind of people who serve as colorful footnotes to the lives of high-achievers. And while Todd, the main character of “A House in Our Arms,” isn’t all that noteworthy himself—an apathetic hedge fund worker who falls asleep reading New Yorker articles—he does manage to find himself in a love triangle with a girl he knows from college and a man he meets at a gallery opening. Leah is stunning, bisexual, and an aspiring artist who talks about getting her MFA as if she plans on “dropping by the school to pick up something she left there, maybe a coat.” On the other hand, Richard is a cosmopolitan Manhattanite and seems to genuinely care for Todd. You get the feeling that Todd has a good thing going with Richard, but he’s too confused by his relationship with Leah to see that his life would be better without her. “I no longer think of Leah as the love of my life,” he says, “but I do still sometimes think we might make each other the happiest. It would be more like teaming up than being married.” And Todd and Leah would the kind of well-matched couple envied by their friends if it wasn’t for the one complication keeping them apart: that Leah doesn’t love him. So Todd is drawn to the older man who pursues him, craving “the undivided affection Richard gives me on our nights together.” We see here that relationships usually aren’t about finding a match or being the envy of others. It all comes down to being loved in the end. But, of course, Todd is unable to realize this, overcome by his sense of entitlement. He holds out for the edgy and sensuous woman—as opposed to the caring and intelligent man—and he’s young enough to believe that if he just hangs around long enough, she’ll eventually love him back.

In “A House in Our Arms,” Todd reads a selection of Frank O’Hara poetry that exposes what is perhaps the major theme of this collection—“the unrecapturable nostalgia for nostalgia / for a life I might have hated, thus mourned.” In Todd’s recognition of the love he’ll never have with Leah—and more importantly, of what he’s lost with Richard—the essence of Everything Here is laid bare. The growing pains these characters endure is not so painful in and of themselves, but it’s in the act of thinking about growing older—in being nostalgic for the present—through which they place themselves within the world at large.

The sixteen stories that make up Everything Here are generally short, most of them coming in under ten pages, and for this reason I wondered how they would work as a collection. The initial stories, and the final few for that matter, are too pedantic, they try too hard to be big, like “a protest sign, or long-winded bumper sticker,” to quote the collection’s final story. And more often than not they cut off before things get really complicated. Like “Tennessee,” many just stop without really ending. In terms of plot and theme, there are a bunch of loose ends, which puts a good deal of pressure on the proceeding stories to fill in the gaps left by their predecessors. There’s a recklessness in how these stories are told and in the way they jump from one to another, a speed that borders on daring. It would have been nice to see some of them linger a while longer in their moments of uncertainty before rushing off to the next scenario, but the book’s structure is fitting in other ways too. Taylor doesn’t provide us with many answers; he presents a scenario, provides an image, raises the stakes and then gets out, something Barthelme was a master at. And perhaps this is where their greatest similarity lies, in that many of these stories demand to be read multiple times, often functioning more like poetry than fiction, although they aren’t really prose-poems. It’s in these second and third readings that the broader significance of the work emerges, where we find what vital goods simmer under the surface.