This is shaping up to be a banner year for short stories. Thus far, we’ve been graced with a stunning greatest-hits collection from Tobias Wolff, a virtuosic and psychologically complex debut from Vietnamese writer Nam Le, and the long-awaited return of Max Apple to fiction writing with The Jew of Home Depot and Other Stories. (Okay, maybe the Apple only has me excited.) Now, two more books have arrived to remind us that, despite the fact that no one buys the books, there’s no stopping short fiction.
Janet Sarbanes and Leni Zumas experiment with form as they boldly venture into some unsettling subject matter. Sarbanes, the author of the quietly devastating and mordantly funny collection Army of One, is a writing professor at CalArts; the school’s Web site notes that she specializes in “theory of narrative.” I’m not sure what that means, but after you read her collection, it’s clear that she’s got some compelling ideas about story and plot and is not afraid to put them into practice.
Sarbanes likes to break up her compact stories with elliptical blocks of text, thereby helping to move a story along through time and space without devoting three years of her life to a novel. In “Dear Aunt Sophie,” she traces the estrangement of two sisters, as well as the creeping cynicism of adulthood, through a series of e-mail exchanges between a wide-eyed child and her aunt. In one such e-mail, Sophie writes:
So much of your time is taken up with recovering from the everyday shocks people deliver to you in passing — those careless little acts of uncaring, like driving a Hummer or spending fifty thousand dollars on a wedding or paying their nanny less than minimum wage. And that makes it so you have to spend more time reminding yourself of the careful little acts of caring people also perform, like offering to let you use their Vons Club card when you forget yours so you can still get the discounts, or picking up a hitchhiker in the desert even though they could get murdered by him …
In “Join Hands,” Sarbanes chronicles the troubles of Grace, a white girl attending an inner-city school, by devoting one paragraph to each school year. In second grade, Grace arrives early to find a group of fifth-grade black girls eating breakfast: “At seven-thirty in the morning they line up silently, eyes crusty and hollow, and when they get their food, they sit down and eat like they need to live. Grace backs out of the cafeteria door. She never comes to school early again.”
As far as story structure goes, Sarbanes has some kind of mad PowerPoint jones. In the wrong hands, that could be a disaster — like some postmodern trick gone awry — but Sarbanes is a writer of great precision; each discrete chunk of prose is like a little seismic event.
In “Warming the World,” a neohippie commune is torn asunder when love gets in the way of free love. Sarbanes’ story unfolds in the jottings of a daily journal in which any and every member can set down his or her musings for all to see. When an outsider named Maya joins the group, it disrupts the already fragile order of things:
So much for Maya. Too bad. Everyone agrees she’s out after Growth Group, right? I mean, she’s sexy alright, but what a nut job! Textbook Willful Non-Cooperation!
No way! I thought she was great. I want her in. I want her in.
Sarbanes is laying bare the commune’s phony idealism. The mind can’t be autonomous from the body’s urges, and human feelings will always complicate fleshly urges, no matter the high-minded rhetoric that tries to occlude such things.
All the stories in Army of One display an astringent wit, but Sarbanes is on to something here. Most of her protagonists are thrown into closed social structures that don’t look upon interlopers with favor. And yet these characters strive to fit in, because meaningful connection, in the final analysis, is all we have to offer each other. Even the space creature who swoops down from the stars to teach the female narrator of Alien Encounter about interstellar sex needs the company. “‘Now isn’t a great time to be an alien in America,’ she said. ‘They’re really cracking down on illegal immigration.’”
If Sarbanes’ characters are looking to connect, many of the young folks in Leni Zumas’ stories are working in the opposite direction: trying to divorce themselves from burdensome emotional ties and consequent interference with self-actualization. It’s a testament to Zumas’ skill that the book, which contains dope addicts and stories set in loony bins, doesn’t devolve into a Girl, Interrupted for the pitchfork.com generation. She’s too smart to fall into that trap.
The title story tips us off to Zumas’ knack for crawling inside the heads of protagonists who feel trapped by circumstance. An unnamed son is living with his two legally blind parents, whom he calls Black and Blue (a nod toward some history of abuse?). This isn’t some syrupy Mitch Albom–esque triumph of the human spirit: The handicapped characters, who are usually ennobled in such stories, are creepy and venal here, capable of casual cruelty and betrayal — as when the son comes upon his mother with a teenage boy he has invited to spend the night:
Downstairs, a strand of noise from the kitchen — Blue’s voice. Please, she is saying. Oh please. Give me your hand.
Plum chutney comes up my throat. I swallow it down.
I don’t think so, says the kid’s voice.
Please touch me. Please, here —
I run in and hit the light. Yellow pours onto Blue, who is naked except for underpants. Her breasts look like puddles of dough. The kid is backed up against the stove, hands over his face, sweatpants — thank God — on.
What the fuck, I shout.
In the oddly moving “Dragons May Be the Way Forward,” the protagonist, whose mother is slipping into dementia, daydreams about James Agee to take her mind off her elder’s “ghoulishness.” “A question from Famous Men is burnt into the skin behind my forehead: ‘How was it we were caught?’ I know a little about caught. I know enough. There is this house. There is my mother. There is until she is dead.”
The only solace from these characters’ circumscribed lives is to crawl inside their own heads. In “Heart Sockets,” Zumas imagines a woman of indeterminate vocational skills who tends to sick animals out of her house. From the window of a factory where she sews hearts onto pillows in her spare time, she spots a young boy whose skin resembles “a newborn cougar’s pelt,” his face “blown perfect like blue glass animals that cost a thousand dollars.” She imagines caring for him like one of her infirm mammals: “His mouth I wouldn’t dive a needle into; I would gently guide it to my milk.”
It’s a little creepy, but Zumas has only affection for these needy souls, and so we root them on as they seek out whatever peace might come to them through their mind games. It’s a rare writer who can bring us closer to people we might cross the street to avoid. Sarbanes and Zumas aren’t afraid to lead us right up to their doorsteps and make us want to linger there for a while.
ARMY OF ONE | By JANET SARBANES | Otis Books/Seismicity Editions | 175 pages | $13 softcover
FAREWELL NAVIGATOR | By LENI ZUMAS | Open City Books | 168 pages | $14 softcover