Writers should excel to be more than simple transcribers of thought and action; they should be the stethoscope of every letter and every word, taking the pulse as it quickens and stops. Karen Stefano, author of The Secret Games of Words, is one of those writers, and the collection’s theme is a type of wordplay on steroids—not in a humorous style, but rather a delicate and exploratory look at the power and danger of words themselves. Each story sucks you in quietly and attacks your senses.
The title story is the engine of this vehicle. It is a story of a woman observing the downfall of her marriage and the fading love she worked so hard for. She tries to talk to her husband before he leaves. She talks about the very idea central to the entire collection: “I realized then how consonants change lives. A shift turns to shit, friends turn to fiends, Native Americans with their proud heritage become naïve Americans, an epidemic.” This line resonates with you as you read each of the twenty-three stories here. Individual letters have a butterfly effect on the journey the story can go. Each letter, added or taken away, can explode a sentence like an ill-advised chemical reaction. Later in the same story, our narrator explains the secret itself:
The last time you came home I wanted to talk about the secret games of words, their incongruities, how they liked to trip us up, little pranksters wreaking havoc in our lives. I wanted to talk about subtleties that make English the most difficult language to learn. Like being too close to the door to close it, how quicksand works slowly, how oversee and overlook are opposites. I got myself pretty wound up. You were shaking me by the shoulders when I fired off what would be my final observation.
Stefano is poetic when needed, and blunt when asked for. This is the theme of the entire book.
It would be simple to pigeonhole stories into idle times paused by crisis, or stories of familial disaster. But this is more than that. “Swoon” is an enticing and poetically written nightmare of terrors we see all too often. “Undone” is a story that bothers the reader almost immediately by its alarming and growing honesty: “The doctors ask if I’ll agree to take some tests. Simple stuff–reflex, Rorschach, Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory. I don’t see the harm, so I say yes. But I start having second thoughts.” “How to Read Your Father’s Obituary” is a circular story about understanding your own limitations, even while you try to help others. “Different But The Same” forces you to remember the past and how subtle differences could have had impactful consequences. “All the Bad Words Start With V” is like a bizarro version of our title story. The list goes on. Each story punishes your own empathy for others but manages to reward you at the same time.
In addition to the idea of the games of words included in this short story collection, plot-wise, Stefano bends the structure of the story itself in some of the later entries in The Secret Games of Words. “The Asymmetrical Science of Love” bends the lines and expectations of poetic language. But that’s something that isn’t new if you’ve read up to this point in the collection; it’s just another tool in the toolbox for a writer at her peak. The story itself, the dialogue of sorts, moves around the page. It has an incredible mutation of Wallacian footnotes that act as a story all on their own. But Stefano continues to turn the reader’s idea of what constitutes a story with lines like “AllIwannadoishavesomefun.”7 with a footnote of, “7 before I die, says the man next to me out of nowhere.” There is this weird parallel, this reflection of reading a line and then pausing and finding the connecting one. It’s a short entry late in the collection, but one not to overlook.
The Secret Games of Words doesn’t take you on any long journeys. It doesn’t bring you to places completely unknown to you. Everything is familiar; everything is real. The difference here, however, is that Stefano breaks down reality into individual words to remind us of the power of them. They can be dangerous. They can kill. They can resurrect. They can do all of these things and more, if we let them. This collection has stories of all types and sizes, of all plots and action, but they defeat expectation and excite the reader time and time again.
The Secret Games of Words, by Karen Stefano. 1Glimpse Press, February 2015. 126 pages. $15.00, paper.
Nick Sweeney lives in Lindenhurst, New York. He is allergic to dogs and chocolate and yes, he knows how terrible it must be.