shining the spotlight on short story collections
Harper Perennial, February 2013
There was a hum to her, a vibration—like a dropped guitar. (Don’t Eat Cat)
The stories in Jess Walter’s collection We Live in Water – long-listed for the Frank O’Connor Short Story Prize – have found homes in places like Harper’s, Esquire, Playboy and McSweeney’s. They have been anthologized in Best American Short Stories and Best American Nonrequired Reading. It’s not surprising that they exhibit an accomplished degree of craft. In the best of these stories, the narrative machinery hums along and the author effortlessly juggles multiple narratives and motifs. But ultimately the stories felt more constructed than deeply imagined, the characters more outlined than inhabited. As I read them, I was reminded of one of the more useful rejection letters I received for one of my own stories. The editor wrote that she admired the writing but could “see the fiction being made.” Curiously, the book’s truest moments come from its final piece, Walter’s nonfiction collage of facts and anecdotes about the town where he grew up and still lives, Spokane, Washington.
Though this is a debut collection, Walter is hardly an emerging writer. He has published six well-regarded novels—including, most recently, Beautiful Ruins, and The Zero, a novel about 9/11 that was a finalist for the 2006 National Book Award. He writes both literary fiction and mysteries (Cousin Vince won the 2005 Edgar Award), and has published a nonfiction account of the standoff at Ruby Ridge. His range is impressive to say the least, and that range is evident in We Live in Water, which includes stories about a homeless man trying to connect with his son, a father who resorts to spying on his kids, a copy editor who tampers with the newspaper’s horoscope, and a man whose ex-girlfriend has become a zombie.
Yes, there is a zombie story, as good a place to begin as any in trying to pinpoint what is good and admirable in Walter’s stories, and where they tend to go wrong. On the one hand, Don’t Eat Cat brings a genuine freshness to a genre that can easily grow tired and stale. In Walter’s universe, the zombie epidemic emerges not from a scientific experiment gone horribly awry, but from a trendy designer party drug. In fact, even after this mother of all side effects becomes clear, people continue to indulge in the drug—a twist that takes “opiate of the masses” to an entirely new level. Such a fate has befallen the narrator’s ex-girlfriend, and after trying to move on and forget about her, he eventually hires a private detective and ventures into the city’s zombie district in search of her. Yet the very real sadness and ache of the story’s final act is undercut by the author’s broad and all-too-easy swipes at satire early on. For reasons which aren’t clear and which don’t seem to have anything to do with the story’s themes, Walter’s post-apocalyptic future features bizarre pairings of chain stores and financial services (Starbucks-Financial, Walmart-Schwab, KFC-Bank of America). The author has great fun with this, and with a new breed of political correctness and incorrectness that springs up in the wake of the zombie epidemic. But I could’t help feeling that in refusing to commit to a unified tone, Walter misses out on an opportunity to transcend the genre in a meaningful way.
Tone is an ongoing problem in the collection. The author has a weakness for striking broad comic notes that verge on a kind of self-satisfied cleverness. A story where this tone works, mostly, is The New Frontier, in which a man who has recently failed at both the bar exam and at his marriage accompanies an old high school friend on a mission to Vegas to rescue the friend’s stepsister from a life of prostitution. The narrator’s relentless sarcasm somehow fits the pervasive unreality of the setting. The two friends stay only at hotels slated for demolition—“one step ahead of the wrecking ball”—including the titular establishment, named (with heavy irony) after JFK’s 1960 convention speech. The story slyly deepens as it reveals each character’s complicated history with the missing girl. But even here the author pulls his punches with an ending that flirts with real resonance and then backs off.
The title story is the book’s standout, and it also stands apart in its unapologetic tone of melancholy and loss. It tracks two narratives, one taking place in 1958, the other in 1992. In the earlier story, a father makes an ill-advised decision to bring his son along on an ill-fated attempt to come to terms with the powerful man he has wronged. Years later, the son tries to pick up the trail of his long-disappeared father. An aquarium and its resident fish bumping up against the edge of their known world emerge as a potent motif and metaphor. Yet the story is problematic as well. In most stories featuring such paired narratives, a buried secret from the earlier story finds its way to the surface in the present one. We Live in Water is defined by what stubbornly stays in the past. It’s an interesting departure, but it invariably lends the story a dramatic inertness. Denied the truth that would help him truly understand his father, the son is doomed to a fruitless wild-goose chase. And because he has built a dead end into the present narrative, Walter has no choice but to conclude the story in the past, which is its own kind of dead end, having already been settled upon. The story resolves itself lyrically with an inspired riff on its central metaphor, but dramatically it is as closed off as the aquarium.
In the end, it’s that lack of open-endedness, of the critical space in which mystery breathes and thrives, that is missing in this collection. We are left with careful constructions that succeed in diverting but ultimately fail to inhabit and haunt.
While reading these stories, I had the inescapable sense that they represented a diversion for Walter as well. Three loosely linked short-shorts felt like hastily drawn scenes from an abandoned screenplay. And though The New Frontier was to me one of the stronger stories, the narrator’s ex-wife (an offstage character, as are many of the book’s women, but a significant one) is first referred to as Amanda, and then later, three times, as Amelia. One wants to be forgiving and assume this is the kind of thing that can fall through the cracks as a story makes its way from a journal to a collection. But as someone who reveres the short story form for its radical attention to detail, it’s hard not to see this oversight as symptomatic of a broader inattention.
Part of the short story’s radical attention to detail means making every character count. A novel can arguably get away with insignificant characters; a short story cannot. Offstage characters are especially tricky, because the writer runs the risk of treating them as mere names on the page, not as flesh-and-blood human beings brimming with mystery and complication. It is one thing for Walter’s offstage women to be missing from his male protagonists’ lives. It is another thing for them to be so entirely missing from the stories themselves. His rendering of them is, at best, cursory. The Amanda/Amelia glitch is more than a proofreading error. The real lapse here is not that Walter gets a character’s name wrong. It’s that he regards her as so little more than a name.
About the reviewer: Scott Doyle is a fiction writer and freelancer living in Los Angeles. His stories have been published in journals such as Night Train, New Madrid, Confrontation and Quiddity. He once owned an independent bookstore, and has also worked as a baker.