Laura Adamczyk’s stories are not for the faint of heart. Her stories involve sisters and estranged fathers and young men and women attempting to remake themselves, those “who commit to no life even [their] own,” there are lovers both potential and unrequited who are truckers and Lincoln scholars and La Quinta managers. They are filled with adults who are preoccupied with their own affairs or who aren’t to be trusted, and who fail or die regardless. Their children are forced into weighty situations and who, despite shared experiences, emerge with divergent memories and traumas.
Hardly Children‘s stories read as innocuous enough at first—yet as they unfurl this becomes questionable, ominous, the fissures become wider. These aren’t redemption narratives. Rather, they’re keenly observant and aware and unapologetic for this. Their narrators attempt to control their relationship to disappointment, to eke out a space and identity to call their own, however idiosyncratic. It’s as if entering American Gothic, you emerge from Saturn Devouring His Son. The stories in this volume have lingered with me long after most fictions do, haunting my psyche in unexpected ways. I spoke with Laura via email about her stories, their intricate structures, their ‘terrible characters,’ discomfort, and the new dirty real.
The Millions: With regard to writers, who are your idols, compatriots, agitators, influences? What short stories or collections do you return to again and again?
Laura Adamczyk: Édouard Levé, Lucia Berlin, Toni Morrison, Joy Williams, Diane Williams, Borges, early Michael Ondaatje. Denis Johnson’s short stories, Because They Wanted To and Bad Behavior by Mary Gaitskill, Esther Stories by Peter Orner. “The School” by Donald Barthelme, “Bullet in the Brain” by Tobias Wolff, “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” by Joyce Carol Oates.
TM: I’ve recently been deeply immersed in the works of Ali Smith, and in her book Artful she remarks that short stories are about brevity and the shortness of life and in this way their sense of time is elastic, while novels are about continuance and attached to the trappings of their time. I’m curious to hear your thoughts on stories and time, especially with regard to the way your stories will make striking leaps in time and perspective that refract and shift the reader’s awareness of the central action.
LA: I think I agree with what Smith says, as hesitant as I may be to make any overarching pronouncements about what one can and cannot do in stories vs. novels. But because of their brevity, short stories do have more of a mandate to make sharp turns if an author wants to expand the scope with regards to time. There’s no expectation that a story will have as encompassing a blanket as a novel.
I can’t say these leaps in time are something I think about intentionally while first writing a story—say, as in “The Summer Father” or “Girls.” It’s much more associative to the story’s prevailing timeline, but once I realize what I’m doing, I make it more strategic. Jumping forward here and there, but not everywhere. It works better as an accent, I think. Equal parts past and present, or present and future, would make things too even. I don’t want so smooth a shape. It’s a nice little trick, really. It often seems like the freedom of writing novels is that anything at all can be included—it’s a freedom of excess. With stories, that anything-goes sense must happen more pointedly. I can make big moves in stories, but maybe only once, and quickly.
TM: Perhaps this is part two of the above: You and I have discussed writing short stories versus the endeavor of writing novels and as I recall you had some very smart things to say about the ways story writing differs from novel writing, especially when it comes to structure. Do you consider yourself an architect of your stories? Are you methodical in configuring them? And to what extent do urgency and abandon come into play?
LA: Form and structure take more control in some of my stories than others. It’s nice when that happens because structure can be something I struggle with. It’s a relief when I come upon something like the conceit for “Gun Control,” for instance. That was maybe one of the most fun stories in the collection to write, despite the subject matter. I did a lot of free associating, just writing down whatever as it came—the opposite of how I usually write. In that story, a pattern eventually emerged, and I went back and shaped it. But it’s often hard for me to get into so free, so playful of a space. For other stories, the form and structure feel a lot less intentional, like I’m stacking one thing on top of the other until it’s as tall as it needs to be but solid enough not to fall over. Sometimes it’s just like, Am I done? I think I’m done. But I’m always working under the mandate that the story should never be longer than necessary. Like reducing fractions—get it all the way down.
TM: Hardly Children is such an apt title for this collection. The title comes from a story about children who are becoming adults in a time when boys in the community are being murdered by bands of men—at first this premise seems a bit mythic (and reminiscent of Stephen King’s It) but then a protest scene becomes anchored as the list of dead boys’ names are called out. At that point the scene changes utterly, evoking the Black Lives Matter protests and the ever tragic and growing list of boys and young men killed by police. Children don’t find refuge in these stories—there’s always fear or terror or some unnamed unknowable danger or loss lurking just beyond and the adults have ambivalence towards children too. I’m curious to hear your thoughts about the children in these stories and what the title means to you.
LA: For me, the title points to two things: children thrown into adult situations, into peril, and often stunted adults acting in childish ways, in a manner that we might not consider fully adult. I think the ways these children and adults overlap has to do with language. There’s often a threat lurking, even if it’s as yet unknown. But neither the children nor the adults form language around their trauma or fears: the children because they are not yet able, and the adults because they’re too afraid to do so, because they’d rather ignore or bury those fears.
In the context of that story, “hardly children” is also a way to disparage those victimized, the same way young black victims of police violence or young (often) female victims of sexual violence, for instance, are made to seem older than they are, more dangerous, more adult, and therefore somehow deserving of their terrible fates. They’re hardly children, hardly angels. It’s an attempt by those in power to justify the horrible things they do to vulnerable individuals.
TM: Tolstoy’s adage, that “every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” applies to your stories in the most delicious ways: the tensions and refuges of sisterhood, the experience of being a child captive within a family and its circumstances. The precision with which this dystopia is captured is unique—like in “The Summer Father,” where the middle daughter fleetingly feels joy and of wanting it “so bad but knowing it as something that will peak and then flow away.” Also, in that story, the youngest sister is consoled by sleeping with a tiny (and I imagine unwieldy) toy vacuum. What draws you to exploring the boredom, despair, hatred, affections, and airlessness even, of these circumstances?
LA: Most generally, I think what draws me to these circumstances is that family is not chosen. You have absolutely no control over who your parents are, who your siblings are, etc. Later in life, people can certainly seek out and create their own, separate families—friends, lovers, co-workers, political comrades, etc.—and can shed their biological families if they want to, but most of your childhood isn’t up to you; your family, for good and ill, isn’t your choice. It’s interesting to me to see how those people relate to each other over time, the way they can move closer together and further apart. More specifically, more personally, I’m drawn to such circumstances because, well, I’ve had those circumstances. I have two sisters with whom my relationship has transformed and shifted. And I have a lot of specific memories of and with them to draw from. Camping and bickering and dancing and talking and not talking, etc.
TM: The narrators of these stories are always onlookers, often grasping—through memory, interjection—to understand their circumstances and/ or claim their distance. Perhaps what I’m drawn to most is how your female protagonists are self-aware and uncomfortable and are utterly unapologetic for this. What role does discomfort have in your fiction, in these depictions of family, and is it a source of feminine strength?
LA: I once heard that those who can’t act observe. That might sound reductive, but it’s at least partially true for some of these characters. A lot of them either can’t act or don’t feel like they can, so they see, they notice. It’s adaptive, to become a sort of supreme noticer, and I believe there is a certain power, and yes, a feminine power, in that—to see and try to make sense of what you see. Because women are so often expected to be caretakers, to keep their distance, to let the discomfort lie, is a way of rejecting those expectations. But that’s also a generous way of seeing some of these characters. Many of them just can’t handle engaging more fully, so they seek out spaces of their own, which often tips them into isolation.
TM: Considered together, the stories in Hardly Children echo some kind of Dirty Realism—definitely the female and finer half (like Bobbie Ann Mason, Angela Carter, and Jayne Anne Phillips, who were included in Bill Buford’s genre-defining issue of Granta). In Buford’s intro he quotes Phillips to say their stories consider “how things fall apart and what is left when they do.” In this case perhaps Hardly Children is next-generation dirty—saucier, dirtier, and darker, not just witness to, but unafraid to protest? To what extent have the dirty realists shaped your thinking for or against the short story? I’d like to say these stories are also riddled with something like Lispector’s passion and Kristeva’s abjection. In what ways do you hope to break open the form?
LA: There are times when I can remember exactly what I was reading when I wrote something, but short of that I have a hard time either directly placing myself alongside or diverting from other writers. So frequently the challenge is just to get something down that means something to me and that might mean something to others. It’s hard to see yourself sometimes, you know? That having been said, I read a lot of those writers as I was coming up, and have absorbed that style to such an extent—I put a similar value on the dirt and the gunk, the specific detail—that it’s very much a part of me. It’s like a French cook trying to verbalize the influence Julia Child had on their food. For so many, she’s the standard. I told a friend I wish I could strip away specific memories and experiences so that I could view my work more objectively to see what I really think of it. But objectivity is impossible, especially if you’re the object.
TM: What lure does the Midwestern landscape hold for you?
LA: Even though it’s a cliché, I appreciate the blankness. I like the feeling of characters being left with only their terrible selves.
R.L. Stine’s horror adventures for kids, Goosebumps, are apparently the second best selling book series in history, right behind the exploits of the world’s most famous wizard.
As a lifelong Goosebumps fan, I find this endlessly puzzling.
It is not like I am alone in my adoration. Stine has his share of devotees. Goosebumps recently got a movie and will soon get a second one. The first film, starring Jack Black as a cursed RL Stine, is exactly the gooey mashup of random monsters, dorky characters, and screwball humor Goosebumps fans find palatable—or are compelled to appreciate after reading too many Goosebumps early on.
… And yet.
Compare the state of the Goosebumps fandom to their main commercial rival, Harry Potter, its ending lines inked on countless forearms all the world over, its jewelry hanging from the necks and wrists of not a few respectable adults I know. Harry Potter has turned England into the kind of theme park that would make Jean Baudrillard, with his Disneyan America, break into heavy breathing. People cue at King’s Cross to take pictures as they cross to Platform 9 ¾. Shops all over Oxford sell Gryffindor hoodies and full-size Hogwarts banners. Hell—J.K. Rowling has a double West End show that is honestly overpriced, especially considering every child in England is going to sonic-attack their parents and go on hunger strikes until they are sedated or brought to the play.
Goosebumps merchandise does exist, but it is, unfailingly, kid’s stuff, phosphorescent plastic monsters and lunch boxes, mostly originating in the forgotten folds of the 1990s.
Let me put it this way: would anyone spend somewhere between $110 and $350 to see a double Goosebumps show on Broadway? The idea is ridiculous (although I would do it).
C.S. Lewis famously said that “a children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest.” I respectfully disagree. It seems to me that the children’s books that struck me the most as a kid were precisely those I don’t get as an adult.
No matter how hard one tries, childhood is bound to remain inaccessible, except in glimpses, bouts of genuine nostalgia, the occasional moment of awe. As such, to really reread the Goosebumps books past 13 you need to be the kind of adult who is comfortable playing with Legos—and even then, chances are you’ll feel as if you’re playing with your old toys. Some will be beautiful, some will be crap toxic plastic, but the magic you had endowed them with and the tales you had inscribed in them will be forever gone. They are never coming back. Reader beware indeed.
But it seems to me that my extensive experience with Goosebumps between the age of eight and 13 taught me many of the lessons I still hold dear when approaching literature of all kinds, and dare I say it, while living the rest of my life too. I was recently bored by HBO’s Westworld, whose entire plot and major twists—minus the constant philosophical essay-fodder—is condensed in the 100 pages of A Shocker on Shock Street. I have never met an unreliable narrator able to trick me for long, not since I accompanied Billy throughout Welcome to Camp Nightmare only to find out he was an alien all along. So here, then, is an apologia for R.L. Stine’s work, in the form of a list of lessons I learned reading Goosebumps.
1. No One Cares
David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest weaves an elaborate reflection on the dangers of solipsism and self-absorption. On how we are unable to talk meaningfully about vast horrors—depression, werewolves—because our interlocutors, being human, will be too focused on their own inner lives, and on their own personal horrors, to fully open up and listen.
You find plenty of that all over Goosebumps. Even the most basic message—mom, there is a monster in the kitchen, could you come into the kitchen to see the monster that is in the kitchen?—is nigh impossible to deliver. You stutter or don’t make sense; people are too troubled to listen; they have their own personal miseries to think about, their prize-winning gardens and creaky kitchen cabinets turned into all-consuming worries.
This, incidentally, is a rare instance of a Goosebumps theme that speaks to you louder as an adult, once you have had the chance to mumble your way through a couple of job interviews, declarations of love, coffees with high school friends who won’t stop looking at their phones, and you know how hard it is to say the simplest things.
2. The Greatest Horrors Are Small-Scale
Like most kids, when I was little I was convinced my hometown was the center of the universe. A walk to the city center was not something undertaken lightly. Trips to the countryside or to gargantuan Milano had the overtones of quests. My school was a castle, its unexplored corridors holding potential mazes and monsters.
In time, this conviction crumbled away, but when it was there it was made all the more stronger by being instinctive, and unquestioned. It is one of the genius features of Stine’s Goosebumps that its horrors are often very limited, confined. The local librarian turns into a monster at night. Something wicked lives in my basement. The bullies at my school have a terrible secret.
When all of your world is confined to your town or neighborhood, the idea that even a small corner of it is given up to the unknown is terrifying beyond belief. And the fact that these dangers are local and observable rather than absolute and invincible makes it all the more hideous when everyone fails—again—to care.
This, by the way, is one of the key points of Stephen King’s It—spiritual godfather of all Goosebumps books.
3. Assumptions Will Get You Nowhere
On a basic level, this teaches you not to trust the surprisingly nice girl you met at Summer camp. Sure, it has something to do with the basics of narrative suspense: the old man living in the swamp who everyone says is a werewolf is clearly not going to be the werewolf that’s killing all those deer.
Beyond this, Goosebumps—like much horror literature—are a crash course in suspended judgment and unreliable narrators. They teach you that the supposed All-American kid telling you her life story may well be an alien, a monster, a ghost, or a dog. In doubt, question what you’re being told. Use your head. Keep that in mind when you pick up Pale Fire.
4. Adulthood Is a Scam
Michael Chabon’s essay “Faking It”—from Manhood for Amateurs—confirmed a suspicion I have harbored all my life: that being a father and adult who knows how to fix furniture, handle emergencies, and ensure the safety of the entire household, is mostly a matter of pose.
This suspicion was first instilled in me by Stine. Adults in Goosebumps, where not evil, are unfailingly hopeless. The series unfailingly resonates with anyone who was picked on by a teacher (justly or unjustly is besides the point) only to be ignored by their parents.
Adults invest so much belief in this scam they call adulthood that, in order to stop the International Children Revolution, they will occasionally side with the evil piano teacher who’s going to murder little Jerry, rather than acknowledge he may be on to something.
5. It’s Okay to Be Bad
It’s actually okay to be full-fledged Evil. If you are going to grow fangs in a few years and eat people, listen: you do you. People will call you a monster, but you know what? If you accept what you are, chances are you’ll be alright. Monsters are always happy at the end of Goosebumps books; it’s the people who obsess over normality that end up miserable.
6. Be Careful What You Wish For
As in the classic Goosebumps book, Be Careful What You Wish For. Children’s longings can reach unbearable magnitude. I really want that game; I will burst into flames and die if I have to wait the 10 full days that separate me from Christmas.
But longings are bizarre things, liable to bite you on the ass. You wanted to be a stage magician? Now you’ll see the stages of the whole world…as a white rabbit. You wanted to go to sleep in that bizarre bed in your home’s attic (admittedly not the most enlightened incipit in the series)? Expect bad shit.
7. Life Is a Game Where You Don’t Know the Rules
And it’s not one of those progressive modern board games where the point is to have a lovely time and bond. The point is to manage your resources, outsmart your opponents, and win. It will happen that you don’t get the rules. It is going to be humiliating, and to harm you.
The more straightforward staging of this theme occurs in The Beast from the East, where the main characters are literally caught in a game played by blue monsters whose rules are way past their grasp. The loser gets eaten.
A subtler, more useful variant can be found in all the Goosebumps—and there’s many—where characters have to navigate a new environment, like a school or neighborhood. You won’t understand why everyone is so scared of the cave out of town. No one’s sure what’s the deal with the director of this Summer camp. But be assured that you need to figure that out, and quick.
What Goosebumps do not tell you is that what in grade school may look like a temporary situation—so I don’t get why some things have to be the way they are because I am a kid!—never really stops. The age of 30, once a bit of anecdotal nonsense, is starting to loom on my horizon like a terribly certainty. I still haven’t found life’s rules manual.
8. Two Final Maxims
It doesn’t matter if things seem to work out and everything seems to make sense. It doesn’t matter if you are happy, serene, satisfied. Something horrible is going to happen to you.
Also: not only do monsters exist, not only are they literally everywhere, but if you think about it a while, you may realize you are one of them yourself.
We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for March.
Looking for additional book recommendations? One of the benefits of subscribing to The Millions is access to our exclusive monthly newsletter in which our venerable staffers let you know what they’re reading right now. Learn more here.
5 Year Diary
Her Body and Other Parties
Little Fires Everywhere
Sing, Unburied, Sing
This month brought nothing new to our list and the top half remains unchanged. The first six titles from February are also the first six titles for March. Mercifully, titles seven, eight, nine, and ten switched places, which gives me enough material to write at least this single sentence.
Most of this month’s near misses carried over from February as well. The lone newcomer is Tayari Jones’s An American Marriage. In our Great 2018 Book Preview, our own Nick Ripatrazone observed that, “In our greatest tragedies, there is the feeling of no escape—and when the storytelling is just right, we feel consumed by the heartbreak.” He highlighted Jones’s “powerful new novel” as an example of this feat, stating that despite the book’s tragic turns of plot, its author “makes sure … we can’t look away.”
Next month at least two spots will open up after Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere and Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach graduate to our Hall of Fame. Which books will take their places? Will they be new releases or some of the near misses from our previous lists? There’s only one way to find out.
In the meantime, those looking for recommendations on what to read should consider subscribing to our monthly “What We’re Reading” round-up, which is sent to Millions supporters. You can learn more about the (extremely affordable!) program over here. In recent months, these round-up emails have featured Hannah Gersen on Future Sex, Iľja Rákoš on Penguin Lost, and yours truly on The Trees The Trees, Shelter, and It to name just a few. The round-ups provide quick, snapshot book recommendations from Millions staffers and special guests which serve as digital recreations of the staff picks shelf stickers at your favorite bookstore. In the past four months, I’ve added at least a dozen books to my “to read” pile thanks to them.
Something more than serendipity was afoot when I entered my neighborhood’s pie-eating contest this year. It was a warm, sunny morning so I hoofed it a few blocks from my house to the bakery, signed up for the day’s contest, and returned home to kill four hours before it began. I was sitting on my porch, having just cracked open Thomas McGuane’s Ninety-two in the Shade, which I’d plucked at random from my bookshelf of Florida writing. (You may have read about my “thing” with the Sunshine State…) Not long after, I got to a scene in which, you guessed it, contestants eat a bunch of pies, hoping to win a fishing trip:
Before he was really prepared for the event, it was upon him. Abruptly, uniformed men from the truck were trooping to the tables, tall piles of stacked pies in their hands. By the time the pies were emplaced, with the flavor choices of the contestants honored, the judges had raised their pistols.
Then the guns were fired and all twenty lashed into the pies; a moment later and the slowest contestants had eaten five; and in another moment, the first vomiter rose, the gelatinous, undigested cherries of her ‘flavor option’ dribbling down her chest.
And very quickly it was over. Losers were roughly hustled away from the table and the redhead was left alone. He looked around himself in happy disbelief for the brief remaining moment before he was declared the winner. Then all hesitation vanishing, he rose powerfully, baying his triumph in an impressive hurricane of crumbs, the insect jaws agape.
When Nichol Dance gave him his certificate, he said, ‘Boy, fishing is all I’m about! I’m the mother dog of all fishermen and I want to go out with you real bad–‘ With the word ‘bad’ he began to vomit all over himself.
And Dance went off in a panic, saying, “Well, I’ll look to hear from you down to the dock. I hope you’re feeling better!”
I took it as a sign. This contest was mine to win. A year earlier, I’d taken third. The man who won was wearing a full arm cast—the type in which your arm is bent at a 90 degree angle, and a stick holds it out from your waist—so he quite literally beat all of us with one hand tied behind his back. I couldn’t suffer the same indignity twice.
Reader, I suffered the same indignity twice. In fact, I did even worse, placing fourth after the same two gluttons who beat me last time, and after the guy who took first, who apparently had won in 2015, took 2016 off, and chose 2017 as the year he’d reclaim his title.
The experience shaded my entire year in reading, however. From that moment on, whenever I read anything, I couldn’t shake the feeling that what I read would foretell or signal some immediate development in my actual life. This quickly became more than a little scary. I read Mathias Svalina’s The Wine-Dark Sea and worried, am I growing depressed? I read Stephen King’s It and avoided sewer grates as a precaution. (I am not taking a bath any time soon.) I unplugged so many electronics after I read (and reviewed!) Alissa Nutting’s Made for Love. Why risk it? Did that lamp just move? I wondered after reading Jeff VanderMeer’s Borne. While traveling to a friend’s wedding in Montana, I read Stephen Ambrose’s Undaunted Courage, which is a riveting narrative of Meriwether Lewis’s westward exploration. Somewhere in Wyoming, I read the chapter about the men wintering in South Dakota which opens with this line, and I grew terrified until I realized it was summer, and things were warm:
It was always cold, often brutally cold, sometimes so cold a man’s penis would freeze if he wasn’t quick about it.
It didn’t matter that after the pie-eating contest, there had been no instances in which my reading leapt off the page into my corporeal reality. The feeling endured regardless. Then again, in addition to the times when the effect was frightening, there were also moments in which it was aspirational. Maybe I wanted it to happen again. The whole time I read Fire in the Hole, I was waiting for a whiskey glass to appear in my hand. Ditto for Hard Rain Falling. I expected chicken wings to manifest when I read Scott McClanahan’s The Sarah Book.
Alas, none of that came to be. Over time, the feeling’s faded. Recently I read (and reviewed!) Hotel Scarface and I didn’t worry about the FBI wiretapping me once.
More from A Year in Reading 2017
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