To step into the world of one of Michael Czyzniejewski’s stories is to abandon, either voluntarily or by force, all pretenses, to strip away any semblance of grace or elegance from the sordid mosh pit of human relationships in which we all find ourselves. His work has revitalized a term that bad rock writers have all but destroyed: his stories are raw. These characters’ lives are not unrecognizable—they go to the grocery store, they’re allergic to peanut butter, they drink coffee at diners, they’re dishonest. Within their dishonesty, though, is a sense of forgotten innocence—what motivates them is not a secret evil or an active desire to destroy the people around them. During the short stretch of time that we get to spend with each group of characters on the page, it becomes clear that they hurt and yearn and lash out and betray not because they are Othered villains who should be treated with disdain, but because they have no idea what they’re doing. Each misstep encapsulates this very absurd human cluelessness that propels us, stumbling, forever forward as we attempt to make sense of each other and ourselves.
In I Will Love You for the Rest of My Life, Czyzniejewski catches his characters in moments of extreme vulnerability, often met with casual indifference from the outside world. Love is certainly lost in these unconventional breakup stories; lust is certainly unrequited and, at times, misdirected, but these stories do more than explore the vulnerability of a broken heart. These moments of love lost, or never found, seem to act as a catalyst, just something to unsettle these characters over the course of the routine of their lives so we can see them in a human place, a place more honest than the polished and buttoned-up world of pharmacy lab coats and polite grocery store exchanges with strangers and young love blooming in the compartment of a westbound train. These stories get to the root of the all-too-hidden, and much more interesting, strangeness that flows just under the surface of the everyday; they challenge conventional ideas of intimacy within human interaction and remind us that true connection cannot be got at through practiced behavior, through the performance of what a life is expected to be. Intimacy isn’t necessarily found through the kinship of a shared language, two strangers from the Old Country fated to find each other over a leg of sliced lamb; it is not found within a (semi-) confessional conversation between traveling lovers—it is found, instead, in the hands of a nurse as she administers a tick bath to a lonely shut-in, or between a father and his children over a shared pre-wrapped, over-processed Hostess snack cake. It cannot be planned or expected or forced; connection, by nature, is a thing that simply happens or doesn’t happen, on its own accord.
Czyzniejewski’s writing carries within it a very specific practicality that augments, and often forms, these seemingly blunt but secretly tender depictions of the lonely and the lost as they try to find companionship or freedom or esteem or themselves. Those of us who have been lucky enough to hear him read and talk about his work can attest to his disarming demeanor—his style of reading, and the way he discusses his work and writing in general, both lend to his audience this sense that literature is accessible through the everyday, and the everyday can be delightfully strange but with a plainness to it, a messiness. It really comes as no surprise that with each new collection of stories, his writing gets closer to that same honest, matter-of-fact humanness that comes across in his readings and the way that he talks. He has a way of boiling things down, taking the strange and the seemingly ‘deep, dark’ about us and giving it public space in which to move around; he gives us permission to laugh as we explore and place ourselves in the world of his characters, to take ourselves a little less seriously.
He perhaps does this most notably in “The Braxton-Carter-VanDamme-Myers-Braxton-Carter Divorce: An Outline,” the title of which sheds light on the overcomplicated surface of things, the muddiness of relating ourselves to the world around us while trying to carve out an identity for ourselves within it, the ease with which we lose ourselves in such an endeavor. What follows is an outline form that might be more expected in a composition classroom, through which people’s lives are cut up into bullet points, no trait or accomplishment or mistake more valued than any other, just split open, spilled unceremoniously across paper, sitting plainly, not gracefully or nobly or meaningfully, in the light of the reader’s gaze. Just the facts boiled down with almost complete objectivity, a story implied. In this and other stories in the collection, we see how past moments, either intimate or sharply unsentimental, can continue to shape our present selves, the beginning of a thing demanding, at the end, its last moment in the spotlight. This coupling of past moments, embedded in the present of the story, show us how we’re formed, molded, hardened, made immovable, made separate.
With their blunt but tender sense of humor, the stories in this collection very poignantly redraw the lines, or our perception of the lines, of intimacy, public versus private space, connection, the self. They pull back layer after layer of fallacy, the fantasy, the glamour, the romance of the world of love. They remind us that we live in a world not of love or not-love, but a world of people who, despite their public calm and collectedness, are brimming over with a beautiful messiness not so far from the surface of things, and it is the messiness that makes us interesting, that endears us to each other, that keeps us exploring and reinventing ourselves and jockeying for position within a world that is, ultimately, no less messy or confused.
I Will Love You for the Rest of My Life: Breakup Stories, by Michael Czyzniejewski. Chicago, Illinois: Curbside Splendor Publishing, forthcoming. 152 pages. $14.95, paper.
Stephanie Marker is pursuing her fiction PhD at UL-Lafayette. She did her undergraduate work in music and creative writing at Western Michigan University, and got her MFA in fiction at Bowling Green State University, where she was Assistant Fiction Editor for Mid-American Review. In addition to editing Lazy Mouse Press, her creative work has appeared in Hayden’s Ferry Review and Third Coast, and her music and book reviews have appeared in West Michigan Noise and Asylum Lake Press, respectively.