I’ve heard it said that the purpose of the first few pages of a novel is to teach the reader how to read the novel. Short story collections, understandably, operate a little differently, yet in the opening sentence of Jessica Hollander’s In These Times the Home is a Tired Place, the lyrical short story collection which won the 2013 Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Short Fiction, readers are greeted with a stunning description:
Our house has walls and doors like any other house and inside each house are rooms and inside the rooms are beds with covers and no matter how much you kick the sheets mom shrink-wrapped to the mattress the covers are heavy on a chest.
Which is fitting, as images of confinement and compartmentalization are the operating motif of the collection. Hollander’s characters are primarily young women in their teens or early twenties, characters who, in a less circumspect or more jejune author’s hands, might burst forward into the world and establish rambunctious audacious lives and livelihoods for themselves. Instead, Hollander’s young women are hamstrung, unsure how to take charge of their rapidly-unfolding lives, and constantly at odds with the societal expectations placed upon them.
Unable or unwilling to navigate through constraining relationships, they seek out solitary spaces, as in the collection’s stand-out paragraph:
In the middle of a mandatory meeting about proposal distribution, the girlfriend excused herself, took the stairs to the second floor bathroom, where space belonged to her: all these cubes she could enter, doors she could latch. Here, she could carefully read the directions and administer the test. She could sit on the toilet watching the white stick’s cloudy window without the boyfriend asking, asking, asking. What’s that? What’s wrong? Are you . . . ? Are you?
Fitting with Hollander’s themes of confinement, the characters who populate this collection are largely unnamed. It’s as if they aren’t even allowed to grow into full personhood. They’re referred to as “the wife,” “the girlfriend,” “the neighbor,” “an ex,” “the aunt,” “the mother.”
In the collection’s most stunning story, “I Now Pronounce You,” “the wife” comes to the stark discovery that her husband is “an American flag: starry-eyed and pin-striped, a regal flourisher to those beneath him.” And the wife? She comes to see herself as the “steel pole” upon which he waves.
Their marriage proceeds like most marriages: “Kids, television, church, counseling—all the Great American Pastimes.”
Then something happens:
In the husband and wife’s third year of marriage, a woman—not the wife—pushed the no-longer-new husband from a third story window after she’d slightly burnt some chicken and he’d refused to eat it. And also he had refused to leave his no-longer-new wife for the other woman because he’d realized the other woman was crazy.
The wife diligently nurses her husband back to health, constantly re-assuring herself that it’s “Good to be a wife”:
How easy and admirable to stay with her husband, which is what she did, and she took care of him. On the day he came home, she helped him up the stairs. He hadn’t looked at her directly since his first day at the hospital, and even now, a month later, he sighed frequently on the steps and turned away when she caught him staring.
The strain of maintaining the façade of successful marriage becomes too much. There’s only so many times she can console herself with empty bromides about how it’s “good to be a wife.” She suffers a breakdown and, in a delicious meta-fictional twist, she “wants to know why she has to be a wife. Couldn’t she be the flag and the flag be the wife because this is fiction where anything’s possible and stories might as well be used for good instead of reinforcing stereotypes.”
Reading Hollander’s stories, one is constantly reminded of how unsettling early adulthood can be. That all these momentous benchmarks— “graduations, wedding, first jobs, first house, babies raised by smiling parents”—are usually crammed within a relatively short period of time just doesn’t seem possible.
“It’s like living in a washing machine,” Olivia, the alcoholic daughter of an alcoholic mother (Lynette) declares in “What Became of What She Had Made.” Her husband’s having an affair and her young son, Henry, smashes toy animals against each other and piles them “into what looked like a mass grave on the deep pink rug.” Together, they make an ill-advised drive to Cleveland to check-in on Christine, Olivia’s sister who has broken off relations with the rest of the family. Needless to say, the visit doesn’t end well.
Another story, “Like Falling Down and Laughing,” chronicles the romantic dissolution of a pair of young teachers:
We moved from student housing to a suburban apartment complex manicured with small, round bushes against the buildings, trim green grass, and plots of marigolds and pansies in the medians of the parking lots. We put money away each month. We accumulated an eclectic mix of furniture, one piece at a time. We talked about going off birth control. But we did not have tenure. At the end of our third year teaching, when we lost our jobs, our luckier colleagues gave us bottles of wine…
Their prized welcome mat is constantly being appropriated by other people in their apartment building. The man’s mother sends “Concern Packages” stuffed with baked goods, and the woman lands a job teaching physical education at another high school, but coping with the pressures of precarious jobs and precarious incomes prove too much. Affections shift. The man starts mutilating their furniture—even their beautiful Ethan Allen table—with a steak knife.
“I wish I could go in reverse,” he says. “There’s this space when you’re smart enough and young enough to cook things up.”
In this one burst of dialogue, he sums up what many of Hollander’s characters are thinking: adulthood, complete with its financial and romantic obligations, closes off the possibilities of youth. Even the possibilities for happiness seem to be exhausted.
As a character in another story remarks, “Nobody serious has ever been happy. It’s two ends of a continuum.”
Though all this sounds depressing, rest assured that there are many moments of sheer emotional magic in Hollander’s taut stories, like in “Put the Animals to Bed,” where a woman comforts a nephew who has recently lost his mother. The boy calls the aunt his “brother,” while “the boy’s father [the woman’s brother-in-law] watched from the couch, cradling a green glass pipe. Even the porch smelled of marijuana.”
The woman and the father share a glass of chocolate milk after the boy goes to bed:
The aunt planned to stay the weekend, take the boy to the aquarium, rest her face against the glass and encourage him to do the same. She planned to miss her sister this way—a missed mother.
Later that night, “a weak voice” wakes the woman:
“Can I sleep with you, Brother?”
“Please,” she told the boy. “Stay here.”
Elsewhere, in “Buttons,” a girl visits her bed-bound grandmother. Jars of buttons are all around the grandmother’s house. The grandmother, it seems, is a button collector, and the girl has brought her “two pearl buttons” that she snipped from her “most expensive sweater.”
“Mom says I’m no good with buttons. Every time, I’m lopsided,” the girl tells her grandmother.
“Grandma brought the buttons close to her eyes and didn’t speak. Every few seconds, a shake went through her hand and she had to refocus her gaze where the buttons ended up.”
To conceal the buttons from the girl’s mother, the grandmother puts them in her mouth.
Later, during a quiet moment, “Mom stared at the pile of buttons. I thought about sliding some into my mouth. I imagined the cool plastic, my tongue turning the buttons over and over, pressing against the tiny holes just big enough for my tongue to recognize. I thought about swallowing them, how they’d lie in my stomach like they lie in the jars, all different sizes jumbled and pressed together.”
Which is a brilliant ending to a brilliant little story.
And then there’s “If We Miss the Beginning,” which, at a mere paragraph in length, is more of a cautionary if beautiful prose poem than a full-blown narrative, reminding us that if we pay too much attention to beginnings, we might fail to see how close we are to endings.
Which brings us to consider the ending the remarkable end story to Hollander’s collection.
In “Blooms Lined Up Like This,” Hollander accomplishes something that we rarely see in collections of un-linked short stories: she brings a resolution to the collection’s central themes. Here, the story’s protagonist is slightly older. Having survived a horrendous marriage to a heroin addict, she’s settled into a new and apparently loving marriage. Begrudgingly, she visits her ex-mother-in-law, Harriet, whom she’s been told is dying.
You might be forgiven for thinking the visit will end badly, yet what we see in Hollander’s protagonist is a woman who has merged successful family life with real personhood.
Do you remember the collection’s opening image of confinement?
Contrast that image with “Blooms Lined Up Like This” closing image:
[The rooms] were so bright and forceful. There were flowers in the house, but we didn’t need them. The rooms were tall and wide, and on the beach side of the house there were no walls, only windows, and outside the windows the waves rushed onto the shore. There was only the small regret knowing I was a part of them and had been away so long. Somewhere behind us were the others.
With that image, Hollander shows up that it’s possible to break free of constraints. Readers will be returning many times to these stories, which certainly can bear the weight of repeated readings. Like many past recipients of the Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Short Fiction, I suspect we’ll be hearing a lot from Jessica Hollander in the future.
In These Times the Home Is a Tired Place, by Jessica Hollander. Denton, Texas: University of North Texas Press. 152 pages. $14.95, paper.
Nick Kocz’s short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Black Warrior Review, Five Chapters, Mid-American Review, The Pinch, and, most importantly, Heavy Feather Review. A graduate of Virginia Tech’s MFA program, he lives in Blacksburg, Virginia, with his wife and children.