Thursday, April 26, 2012

Death Is Not an Option, by Suzanne Rivecca

The blurb on the cover of Suzanne Rivecca's first collection of short stories is from Lorrie Moore, which is appropriate, as Rivecca's stories share some characteristics with those of Moore--troubled female characters who have troubling experiences recounted with wry humor. The title story in the collection is a funny yet sad portrayal of a parochial school's senior class retreat. Emma, who cannot wait to escape Muskegon for Brandeis (she has dreamed for years of being "surrounded by liberal and scholarly Zionists"), is alarmed at her own tearfulness, shocked to learn that one of her friends is having sex, and afraid of a life of futility.

In "It Sounds Like You're Feeling," Rivecca also brings humor to the sad story of a college student who can't quite follow the rules at the helpline where she volunteers as part of her social work major (one in a long string of failed majors). Indeed, things go so badly at the helpline that she is referred to a therapist, whose blindness fosters unhealthy curiosity on the young woman's part.

For me, the humor ends with those two stories, as the female protagonists of the remaining stories tend to be struggling as victims (or with victims, as in the case of a teacher who fears one of her children is being abused). One woman was molested by an uncle when she was a child; as an adult, she finds that telling men about the experience effectively ends their relationship. Yet not telling them has costs as well. Another woman, who has written a memoir about faking religious experiences as a child, is cyberstalked by the owner of a house she tried to rent--but she recognizes that she may be encouraging the stalking to provide material for another memoir. Yet another character struggles to explain her conflicted feelings toward her father, now an elderly low-key grandfather who once seethed with anger.

These stories are well-written and interesting but very sad, especially taken together. As I was reading the collection--not the first collection of short stories about struggling and victimized young women that I've read in the past 18 months or so--I had the thought that a book of dark short stories can make a reader more dispirited than an equally dark novel because of the rapid succession of characters whose pasts, presents, and futures seem gloomy. Perhaps the lack of explanatory detail necessitated by the form also heightens the impact; without greater insight, we struggle to understand why things go so wrong. Whatever the case, I think I will steer away from short stories for awhile.

Favorite passages:
You both pick your words like you're stripping dead buds off a houseplant, but with this strange exhilaration. This fastidious, fussy exhilaration.

Every person who lives a life eventually starts to make it all up: not just the past but the future, too. The only thing you can't create is the present, while it's happening--you going about your day.

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