The Short Story
Matthew Klam writes exclusively about men interacting with women. Sometimes he sounds like a slick version of British novelist Nick Hornby, who is also good the way Klam is good, at writing about the average guys unexamined emotional status. Klams stories are sharp, gorgeous, and clean as a whistle, like very expensive advertisements for certain stylishly aloof states of mind: An alienated couple goes to a friends wedding. An alienated man has an affair before his own wedding. A man is alienated from his girlfriend after an abortion. An alienated couple is visited by relatives.
That last narrator says, I think of that mean thing I said to Linda -- what was that all about? Its like theres a bird in my mouth, screeching. Maybe one day Id open my mouth and it would come out like a flying hockey puck. I dont know, some nights Id like to shoot out all the lights of this fucking house. A moment later the same character says, with an Im-above-irony sneer, But hey, theres plenty of time for that. Shes still there, my cute wife, whom I love . . . Were going to get this thing right. Even when it backfires, you dont necessarily hate someone for very long.
This writing is very up-to-the-minute, smart, overtly clever. All of the stories in Klams first collection were previously published in The New Yorker, and the press kit talks about the furor his first submission created in the editorial office. That story, the title selection in Sam the Cat, follows a gamy hetero man whose predatory sexual habits are disrupted when he mistakes an effeminate man for a woman and, after discovering his preys true gender, cant shake the attraction.
Its a good story. But its not really provocative or disturbing, unless youre reading fiction as self-help, in which case it might well be disturbing to you -- Oprah would be disturbed by Matthew Klam, but in a good way, because of the Issues he raises. But as literature, its not taking us anywhere scary that Paul Bowles didnt go years ago with A Distant Episode or Pages From Cold Point, and not just because Bowles would never carelessly turn a bird into a hockey puck mid-metaphor.
You have to wonder how long its been since anyone at The New Yorker re-read the stories they published in the 50s by J.D. Salinger, which are off the scale for psychosexual creepiness. Compared to Bowles or Salingers sucking-chest-wound masterworks, which allow us to peek into places the sane or empathetic mind can never actually go, Klams stories are emotional tourist brochures for states of mind weve heard about and always wanted to visit.
If you liked Denis Johnsons Jesus Son, then there is either every reason in the world to read Sam Lipsytes Venus Drive -- or else there is no reason to read it at all. That eitheror depends on whether liking a book means that you want to read more books just like it (the way liking the movie Scream made you also want to see I Know What You Did Last Summer), or you feel that the perfection of Jesus Son, in its sense of time, place and culture, sated some part of your literary sensibility so thoroughly that you now hunger only for new experiences (much the way people familiar with Borges were less enchanted, in the 1970s, with the discovery of Gabriel Garcia Marquez than those who had never heard of Borges).
Like Jesus Son, Venus Drive features episodic stories built loosely around a druggieex-druggie main character: He stays home, drinks ODouls, shoots cocaine, watches the tube. Its non-alcoholic, the ODouls. Gary bought a case of it by mistake. They dont mark things properly anymore. Still, itd be wrong to pour it down the sink.
Like Johnsons world, Lipsyte-land is entertainingly bleak-yet-droll -- a cocaine addict drinking a whole case of non-alcoholic beer out of a vague sense of consumerish propriety is funny, but it feels like slightly ersatz whimsy. Johnson, or Padgett Powell (creator of another truly great serial short-story hero, Wayne the roofer), never feels like hes trying to play cute with you, even when the effect his characters hard-nosed bumbling creates is downright adorable. Thom Jones, too, can get cute with his misery -- remember George Babbitt, the jungle doctors pet baboon, getting drunk and falling out of a tree? -- but he does it with such prodigious, passionate abandon that it is always forgivable. With these tough-guy writers, the sweet just leaks out from all the holes in their weatherbeaten skin, while Lipsytes seems to be slathered onto pink skin in an effort to attract bees.
Sylvia Brownriggs Ten Women Who Shook the World is not some kind of feminist tract, and the fact that all the stories are about women is no more remarkable than the fact that all of Hemingways Nick Adams stories were about Nick Adams. Unlike Klams all but shrink-wrapped collection, Brownriggs work is uneven, because shes reaching so terribly far so much of the time. (This collection was actually written before her novel, The Metaphysical Touch, which appeared in 1998. For a review of that book, see www.laweekly.comink9935books-ulin.shtml.)
Almost all of Brownriggs stories depart from reality, taking place in a Borgesian realm that isnt sci-fi, but definitely isnt Kansas, either. In the story Broad From Abroad, Brownrigg creates a narrator who has never seen a city, and we meet her plopped down in the middle of an urban center: When I first got here I noticed just how much motion there is. Sirens sing and spin and people wave at each other constantly -- sometimes in greeting, sometimes with more obscure intentions -- when, that is, they arent knocking against each other like billiard balls and tossing out a quick Sorry -- like a handkerchief seen briefly and then carried off by the wind. You can see their thoughts never stopping. There are so many words in peoples heads here that they spill out and into the atmosphere, causing a dizzying array of signs to go up everywhere with melancholy phrases like last chance sale, You mustnt miss this, and Horne Brothers for men. This odd, fascinating point of view reels you in, until youre so enchanted by the world as seen through this narrators eyes that youre quite unbalanced yourself by the time she lets on that the forest from which she comes, and where her friends are trees with names like Bob and Henry, is much less weird than the street scene just described.
In She Who Caught Buses, a meek, paranoid librarian complains about the Chranks she must wait on, and remembers an episode from childhood when she befriended a figure that lived in the bottom of a pond, a friendship taken away from her by the Chranks on the school bus. The definition of Chrank is never spelled out, but by the end of this most disturbing story, which warrants three or four readings, it begins to sink in. Brownriggs story designs are so novel they fall almost out of range of perception -- they need re-reading not because theyre difficult (on the contrary, theyre very entertaining) but because theyre elusive and complex.
Her stories can be read almost as parables, but they are so fully felt and imagined that they seem breathed into being, rather than written -- a sure sign of the presence of a great writer, when you cant hear the writing, and the story just pours effortlessly into your thirsty ear.
Like George Saunders, another truly exceptional writer, whose collection of satirical fantasias, Pastoralia, appeared earlier this year (and who appears at Storyopolis on October 21), Brownrigg invents her own form and then, seeming not the least bit worn out by the feat of having done so, plays inside it masterfully. There is nothing programmatic about her writing. She isnt merely commenting on the patterns of pain and beauty to be found out there in the world, shes actively making new ones.
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