May 2007

Andrea Chmielewski

fiction

Twin Study by Stacey Richter

Stacey Richter’s collection of short stories, Twin Study, reminds me of the kinds of puzzles I remember doing in the waiting room of my dentist’s office: What is wrong with this picture? Perhaps there is a fish in a tree or a teacup blooming from a flowerpot, always something not quite subtle but easily missed upon a cursory glance. The worlds that Richter conjures in Twin Study are just slightly off, but the people that populate them are human, sometimes frighteningly so.

In the best story of the book, “Blackout,” a sorority sister on spring break finds herself an unwitting accomplice to a gruesome rape. From moment to moment, I found myself simultaneously enraged at the narrator and strangely sympathetic, remembering times in my own life when I so desperately wanted to be accepted, wanted someone to like me, that I would have done anything. “Blackout” is haunting precisely because the absurdity of it is not really absurd at all: I wonder how many people are walking around, carrying a very similar story deep down in some hidden place, desperate, as the narrator seems to be, to tell someone, to admit their horrible transgression. To try and explain while knowing that no explanation will ever be enough.

Other standouts in the collection include “The Cavemen in the Hedges,” about a couple whose relationship is challenged by, of all things, the strange appearance of prehistoric humans with a fetish for Barbie shoes and travel-sized bottles of shampoo, and the first story in the book of twelve, from which the collection takes its name. “Twin Study” is the story of a set of twins whose lives are so divergent that they see each other only every four years for a twin study which they have taken part in since their preteen years. In one of the most eloquent passages in the book, Amanda, the twin who has chosen a life as the kept wife of a rich and much-older man, talks about how little separates her life from her twin’s: “All of us have woken up one morning and said to ourselves: I want everything, everything, now, now, but we grow up. It goes away; the longing to take the whole world inside ourselves, to make every second count, to live many lives... Or -- what? We end up like Samantha -- with our feelings smacking us like waves, over and over, half-drowning us, never getting a chance to learn to swim, never even being smart enough to get out of the water.”

At their best, the stories in Twin Study make the reader walk a fine line between dichotomies that is often so thin it seems more like the edge of a razor than a tightrope. At their worst, the stories devolve into little more than sketches, with only the charisma of the characters to hold them up. Some of these sketches do succeed. “Habits and Habitat of the Southwestern Bad Boy” is a wonderful peek into the lives of two friends who seem much more interested in living the haphazard and exciting lifestyle of poets than actually writing any poetry. Others do not, most notably “My Mother the Rock Star,” which tells the story of a Courtney-Love-at-her-most-debauched-type rocker acting up in a restaurant. Such stories left me confused, wondering how a collection with the likes of “Blackout” could also contain something that seemed to say so little.

Richter’s simple style makes Twin Study a quick, easy read, the kind of collection you could consume easily over a lazy weekend or digest in little bits on the subway or while waiting in the various lines that modern life seems to have us perpetually standing in (perhaps in those molded plastic chairs at the dentist’s office?). While not uniformly captivating, the few gems in Twin Study make it worth picking up.

Twin Study by Stacey Richter
Counterpoint
ISBN: 1582433712
261 Pages