The stories in Lauren Becker’s collection, brief as many of them are, operate through suggestion; they are marvels of suggestion. As a form, the short-short story must often gesture to a world that exists outside itself; sometimes this might be a world we recognize, one like the one we all inhabit; other times that world is a new one, cut from whole cloth by the author; other times it is a world much like ours, but made strange somehow. The beauty of these stories lies, I think, in the way Becker is able evoke the strange in the recognizable and the recognizable in the strange.
In one of the essays included at the back of Robert Shapard and James Thomas’s anthology Sudden Fiction, Alvin Greenburg tells us that brevity in the short-short becomes one of the form’s strengths because “[b]revity is the face of mortality.” I thought of this quote as I read “The Weather in Philadelphia,” where a young doctor in Arizona talks on the phone with her father in Philadelphia, who tells her he is dying of cancer while he at the same time tries to avoid telling her he is dying of cancer. There is a masterful control of subtext here, which gives the story its heart: a man who cannot ask for help, asks for help. But there is a mortality on display in so many of these stories; even if few of them confront death as directly as “The Weather in Philadelphia” does, so many of them still take as their concern what it is to be mortal.
“After the Summer of Girls,” which happened to be the first story I read when I opened the book at random, and which has stuck with me a long time, opens with a description of a scar on the central character, Shelly’s eyebrow, which was put there by her boyfriend, Alex, who smooths the spot “when he is sweet.” The two are at a bar, where Alex likes to seduce women while Shelly watches, and to be clear this is not a game they are playing, this is not something that Shelly is into. As Becker describes her:
[Shelly] sits a few stools away in a short skirt and a tube top he chose, clothing too young for a 40 year-old woman who looks her age to wear. The summer girls laugh at her. She smiles and sucks at the ice cubes in her gin and tonics. She and Alex met in summer.
The description is somewhat typical of Becker’s prose: there is an economy to it, a grace that makes itself apparent as the gaps between each declarative sentence seem to increase, so that the reader must leap ever further as the description progresses. There is surprise here too. On first glance, the detail that Alex chooses Shelly’s clothes seems a fairly straightforward means of telling the reader that he controls her, but if we recall this detail as we’re given the next sentence, about the girls laughing at Shelly, we see that detail, that he chooses her clothes perhaps for that reason, to humiliate her, then Alex’s sadism is given new depth and texture. For me, this detail adds a similar depth to the unreadability of the smile Shelly gives in response to their laughter. Is the smile a mask? Or does it hide a sadism of its own, knowing as she does what will happen when they too get mixed up with Alex?
The novella that opens this collection, “If I Would Leave Myself Behind,” for which the collection takes its name, operates through a process of accretion. Untitled vignette piles on top of untitled vignette, and sometimes the pagination is such that it is difficult to tell where one vignette ends and another begins. The novella opens with a hectoring voice that will resonate with readers familiar with Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl”:
First, do not be beautiful. Men will turn heads briefly and look back for beauty. Challenge them with an elbow. Move away. They will smell perfume and let you pass. Elbows and feet are not dead giveaways. Not even mouths. If you are not beautiful, you may speak. Even the truth….
Like Kincaid’s speaker, the speaker here delivers a sad truth about societal expectation, but unlike Kincaid’s speaker, this one advocates a rebelling against those expectations and constrictions, even if it can never be a full on rebellion, for the listener must choose between beauty and speech (truth), she cannot have both. Like many of the stories in this collection, the drama in “If I Would Leave Myself Behind” comes from a push and pushback with expectations—whether societal expectations, or the expectations of others, or others’ expectations which themselves are internalized societal expectations. As the novella progresses, a consciousness emerges, a character who takes lovers, who is asked not to attend her brother’s wedding, who peels cucumbers in her socks; sometimes she is recognizable from one vignette to another, sometimes she is not; but as we pass from one vignette to the next we are taught to read the language of her consciousness, and it really is something the way that Becker pulls that off. The novella ends with a beautiful moment in which the narrator describes herself as a thing that has recently “broke in half, maybe more,” and is now held together by rubber bands. As she follows this metaphor, a strange and fantastic thing happens—and this can only happen because the book to this point, through its singular, dreamlike logic, has prepared us for it—where the two parts of the metaphor seem almost to merge, so that the image, the thing broken and held together with rubber bands, comes surrealistically alive, standing in almost for the narrator herself. It is a moment of linguistic magic, a strangeing of the familiar, in a book whose strength is in its ability to continually deliver up such moments.
If I Would Leave Myself Behind, by Lauren Becker. Chicago, Illinois: Curbside Splendor Publishing. 120 pages. $14.95, paper.
Bayard Godsave is the author of two collections of fiction, Lesser Apocalypses, and Torture Tree, which was published by Queen’s Ferry Press this September.