shining the spotlight on short story collections
Autumn House Press, 2013
“The Monster who has been haunting me since I was a kid is depressed. We sit on my kitchen counter in the middle of the night and drink chocolate milk. This is so awkward, he says. Don’t worry about it, I say. But really, he says, I feel kind of bad about this.”
Sarah Gerkensmeyer’s stories inhabit an alternate universe, so close to our own, that for the first few paragraphs of each story you think you know where you are, but quickly the off kilter, not what you thought, creeps in and nudges you.
These are quiet, undramatic stories in which although drastic action is sometimes taken, you never get to dwell on the excitement or the trauma. They sink into your consciousness in such a way that you almost believe that what she’s telling you is possible. That very gentleness, while entertaining has a hidden disadvantage – for me anyway – I found myself recommending two of these stories on a panel, and struggling to remember where I’d read them.
We meet babies who talk to the babysitter but not to their family, babies used as therapy for lonely women, without much thought given to their own needs, babies rising up in a mob to wreak vengeance on a shopkeeper who hates them. The oddness is unremarked, the uneasiness, jealousies and ineptitudes of the people these things happen to are firmly of the real world.
We discover Wonder Woman’s difficult teenage years, trying to hide her legs from her school friends and feeling not quite part of the clique she belongs to, monsters coping with depression, and an extraordinary story in which a woman’s husband disappears, apparently drowned, and is found living in the bank of a river, like the catfish he used to wrestle into submission.
A third wife seeks acceptance from the two senior wives in a polygamous not-quite-marriage, a woman on holiday in the unlikely surroundings of an entirely manufactured ‘perfect’ beach resort, seeks out the native women who deep sea dive on the other side of enclosing dome.
The shorter stories are scarcely there at all, little lacunae of thought – a woman weeping in the supermarket, an old couple exploring their meticulously labelled cellar of memories, a husband leaving, by changing gradually over months into someone entirely different, elderly people in a retirement complex taught to call each other by telepathy if they have a fall.
There is a lot of charm, some humour, some wickedness, great ideas and a lot of strangeness, but it all seems to be happening, like Edith’s Ocean Dome holiday, behind a layer of impermeable plastic. I have no doubt it is intentional which makes me feel as though Gerkensmeyer doesn’t actually want us to engage fully with her stories, and we are being held at arm’s length, as a consequence of which I never fully accept the strangeness (although I want to), and find myself restless and unsatisfied.
Read a story by Sarah Gerkensmeyer in Pank
About the author: Sarah Gerkensmeyer‘s story collection, What You Are Now Enjoying was selected by Stewart O’Nan as winner of the 2012 Autumn House Press Fiction Prize, longlisted for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, and chosen as winner of Late Night Library’s Debut-litzer Prize. Her stories and poetry have appeared in American Short Fiction, Guernica, The New Guard, The Massachusetts Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, B O D Y, Hobart, and Cream City Review.
About the reviewer: Cherry Potts is the author of two short story collections, Mosaic of Air and Tales Told Before Cockcrow, and the editor/ co-editor for Arachne Press of several anthologies of short stories and poetry: Lovers’ Lies, Stations, Weird Lies, London Lies and The Other Side of Sleep.