Often, short stories are a gesture, a head nod, a breath, a whole lot of symbolism beneath every action and conversation. They’re the shadows that make up the moments of life. For another kind of writer, the short story is a microcosm. It’s a portal that opens up, sucks you in, spins you around, and might never release you. The stories in Cara Blue Adam’s debut collection, You Never Get It Back, might serve either purpose but in sequence, they form a wholly different experience. They’re like fault lines within the continent of character, a map of life manifested through negative space.
Adams begins the collection with a short parable. A piece of metaphysical (and perhaps meta-fictional) loss. The introduction resonates throughout the book. Those little pings of loss are everywhere—are perhaps everything. Through the following twelve stories (separated into three distinct sections), Adams evokes loss with kaleidoscopic invention. We follow Kate, a narrator both intrinsically relatable and forever unreachable. Adams refuses to provide a character defined by her history, ambitions, or relationships. Kate is neither an audience surrogate nor an altogether active agent within her own story. At every opportunity, Adams rejects convention, refusing to settle on final answers, forever leaning into the unknowable.
Take the title story. Kate and her former college roommate Esme are heading to a New Year’s Eve party. The recent graduates are blown across a frozen New York, both living in the bleary afterglow of college. Their friendship is an odd (but not uncommon) intersection of opposing sensibilities: Kate grew up in relative poverty in rural Vermont with her mother, Esme is a child of culture and privilege; Kate is working at a UMass science lab, and Esme is studying in English graduate program at Stanford; Katie is tethered to a slowly eroding romantic relationship with her boyfriend, Micheal while Esme enjoys a casual friendship with her doting and still pining ex, Paul. What could be a story of chance romance or youthful hedonism, of friendship and aging, of any sort of interpersonal drama that spans the spectrum of literary fiction, becomes something else entirely. It’s a story about the stories we tell, the details we leave out, and how one might define themselves. In a harrowing moment, Adams renders horror and confusion and crushing certainty, fusing the reality of material lack and ephemeral quality of an inner self bursting at the seams.
Family becomes a planet in several stories. The emotional gravity pulls characters into a strange and dangerous orbit. In “Charity,” Kate, her mother, and her sister Agnes gather with their extended family for Christmas dinner. Kate is torn by obligation—to her sister, her mother, and her new self formed outside of them. A generous gift becomes the emblem of failure, forgiveness becomes an impossibility, and things long passed seem to never truly end. In “The Sea Latch,” the trio takes a trip to the shore, staying at a motel off Highway 1. Here, Kate confronts her sister’s unexpected pregnancy. In a scene set at a fancy hotel restaurant—where Agnes feels totally out of place amongst the elegant chandeliers and hardwood—Kate asks why she was the last to know about Agnes’ pregnancy. “I didn’t want you to talk me out of it” is her only response. Kate must reconcile her fears that her 19-year-old sister may want to have a child, despite Kate’s wishes that she wouldn’t. Simultaneously, their mother sits by the hotel pool, unwilling or unable to visit the ocean as it would likely become an unimaginable finality—her last moment by the sea. Both Kate and her mother believe that they can head off change, that by refusing to acknowledge the passage of time, they might stop it entirely. “But we can’t save ourselves,” Kate says, self-aware but still unable to change her thinking.
In the third and final section, Kate has fully ejected herself from her former life, leaving her career in science and academia to pursue writing. Where a traditional novel might ponder the eureka moment, perhaps even create a narrative arc of self-discovery, Adams renders the choice as a small leap of faith. Kate remarks, “… I had seen how work might become a sort of obliteration, how I might dedicate myself to answering questions that grew smaller and smaller until I myself could not remember why I was asking them …” These daily obliterations—the loss of self and then the loss of meaning—are the spinning center of the book. What losses can you fight against? Which ones can you embrace?
In the last stories, Kate commits to loss. In “Visions,” Kate finds herself at a loss for words while staying at an artists’ residency in Virginia. After meeting a painter who is losing his sight, (perhaps echoing a bit of Carver’s famous “Cathedral”) Kate is struck by writer’s block. Unable to see the meaning in her work, she becomes an artist amongst artists, all of them observing, few actually seeing. In “The Most Common State of Matter,” Kate’s life is upended when a friend must undergo ominous medical testing. At the same time, Kate discovers a wedding ring in her boyfriend’s jacket and begins to scrutinize the possibility of another kind of self. Adams is deft with tension, playing up the twin prongs of love and death while making space for the vast uncertainty that anchors the narrative.
Adams leaves off on a celebratory note. A wedding, a reunion, and a future. An unexpected (and fairly uplifting) finale that feels earned by a book that has spent so much time probing loneliness. It’s not overtly sentimental, but as Kate imagines her future on the final pages, the mundane, silly, and self-conscious is made moving. For roughly a decade of her life, Kate has denied herself any moment of unburdened thought. She’s been rigorously committed to forging a self, and though she admittedly doesn’t understand the world, she’s ultimately undeterred.
You Never Get It Back, by Cara Blue Adams. Iowa City, Iowa: University of Iowa Press, December 2021. 186 pages. $16.00, paper.
Vincent James Perrone is the author of the full-length book of poetry, Starving Romantic (11:11 Press, 2018), the microchap, Travelogue For The Dispossessed (Ghost City Press, 2021), and a contributor to Collective Voices in the Expanding Field (11:11 Press, 2020). Recent work published and forthcoming from Storm Cellar, The Indianapolis Review, Levee Magazine, and Emerge Literary Journal. He lives in Detroit.