November 2011

Kathleen Reeves

fiction

Close-Ups by Sandra Thompson

Close-Ups begins with part of a verse from Jeremiah: "the summer is ended, and we are not saved." The epigraph contains two prominent strands in the collection: the disappointment of not being swept up by their own personal savior, and the belief that one day you will be. For all the letdowns in these spare stories, the book is still romantic, animated by the protagonists' desire to be saved: to fall in love. The narrators have big dreams, and as one says in the last story in the collection, "I didn't know that dreams have a tenacity of their own, not visible in their elusiveness, and that we ignore them at our own peril." Putting "dreams" and "tenacity" together in a sentence could be a recipe for disaster, but it is a testament to the force of Thompson's voice that this statement rings true. The stories steadily explore the meaning of this statement: how dreams are overlaid on reality, sometimes to disturbing effect. 

There's the dream of marriage: "You wanted to get married and move to Westchester," an ex-boyfriend tells our narrator, and now that she is married, that dream has become a disappointing reality. "Montauk," like several of the stories, showcases the way that the past and present exist together, throwing the gap between dream and reality into stark focus. Thompson portrays discrepancy and dissonance expertly through her use of jumbled chronology. She doesn't make a big deal of these jumps or "prepare" the reader for them, but begins paragraphs in medias res, says what she needs to say in a few sentences, and moves on to the next scene. In "Horror Show," the collection's best story, we get the end of a high school romance in the middle of the story: "'I don't love you,' I say anyway that second summer in his Mercury with no shock absorbers, parked in the Forest Preserves..."

And then a few short paragraphs later it's back to the peak of love and defiance: "My father rises from his chair and it is settled: the Big Goof must go. So I meet him on corners."

And later: "At the kitchen table, under the bare light, my father offers me $1,000 not to see the Big Goof for one year. My brother hulks, unseen, behind the sliding door."

The ordinary occurrence of falling out of love with your high school sweetheart is rendered eerie and unsettling, like the narrator's brother's interest in horror. As she does in other stories, Thompson grieves her emotional shifts with economy and precision. Particularly in this first story, her sentences and paragraphs are pared down, elegant, and shocking. As the story begins, she moves from a childhood game to her brother's macabre taste to the (too-cozy?) father-daughter relationship, which is shattered when her first boyfriend arrives at age seventeen. In a page, Thompson has constructed a house and a family both ordinarily domestic and unmistakably strange, in which something is lurking, and that something weighs as heavily on the reader as it does on her characters.

The darkness of "Horror Show" sets the tone for the collection, and announces its major theme, the way that love fails: "'I love you,' I say, crouched on the blanket at the foot of the bed. 'What?' my father growls. 'I love you.' His eyes narrow. 'What do you want now?'"

First with her father, and then with her lovers, the Thompson narrator experiences love less as a connecting force than an alienating one. Men are a problem that draws and tangles her. The last paragraph of "Horror Show" makes another announcement about the work that this fiction will do: "What am I supposed to do about them? The brother who loved Frankie, my father with his big bucks and narrowed eyes, the Big Goof who went soft? The scab, you can't see a trace of it, but I remember its red amoeba-like shape, circled in pale yellow, the hint of infection, a sore, a badge."

The minor wounds of love may not be crippling, but they're not so minor, either, and Thompson probes them for meaning. "L.A." is a vibrant portrait of disappointment and superficiality, and a scene in the middle of the story epitomizes Thompson's concision and coherence. It's both a zany drawing of the "counterculture" and a continued exploration of the problems between women and men. A young man who says he's into "interrelationships, like the sun and the moon," explains his girlfriend's silence as follows: her father "had a thing for her," she came to her boyfriend for advice, he told her to sleep with him: "It's 1969. We can do anything." Is he worried about her? the narrator asks:

"Nah. She's cool. You from New York where everybody's still caught up in logic and rhetoric, you've got to learn to give in. Give it all up. Moon's at peace."

"How do you know?"

Miller runs his thumb through the pages of my paperback. "Whew. See what I mean. You are still reading books. It's hopeless, even talking to anyone who reads books."

And, running underneath it all, more disappointment, for, interrelationships aside, this counterculture is no longer countercultural, but firmly settled in the mainstream, as Ben's only topic of conversation is "making it" it the music industry. "I want a real relationship," he says after trying to have sex with the narrator on mescaline and telling her she should have a flatter stomach.

This counterfeit California life is rendered brilliant in Thompson's hands, but unfortunately the disappointments that are the center of part two of the collection, which starts with motherhood, are just disappointing. An exception is "Mother's Day," an interesting, challenging story that alternates between short passages of the narrator at a formal, joyless Mother's Day celebration with her husband's family and scenes of women being attacked in New York City. Thompson shows her strength in the ambiguity of the relationship between these scenes. Is the urban threat of brutality related to the country club bullying of the narrator by her husband and his cousin? Or is her unsatisfying life as a wife and mother an alternative (the only alternative?) to being a victim of this brutality? The threat that men pose is indeed complex, running through the collection in various guises and tones. At the beginning of "Mother's Day," the narrator asks her husband to watch her from the window as she walks the dog. She says that a woman in the Village was killed on the same street where she lived -- but therein is the complexity. She doesn't live there any more; she lives in a house now, with a parlor. She's left downtown for a domestic life in the suburbs, or at least the outer boroughs, but visions of urban violence keep visiting her, and at the country club on Mother's Day, she's unhappy and misunderstood, and her husband narrowly avoids a car accident in a rainstorm: "As far as I can see, there are cars filled with sleeping children, cars driven too fast by men, their wives silent beside them."

The other stories in part two are a little flat. More robust plots might hold up the weight of this unwavering dissatisfaction, but as it is, the stories are short and spare and the conflict is always the same. In "Snow," a mother is claustrophobic in her home as snow piles up outside. Her husband comes home, festive and cheerful, as she changes a dirty diaper. Her toddler keeps asking for candy, a woman from the babysitting pool keeps calling, she keeps washing dirty baby pants, and she and her husband can't speak to each other without shouting. She takes her temperature hopefully, wishing for illness to temporarily excuse her from her life. It's a dreary life and dreary to read. "Memoir, Cut Short" begins, "My ex-husband had blondes who did everything for him. I was a brunette who didn't like to do anything for anybody," and then elaborates on this theme for four pages. It reads more like a journal entry than a short story: "I wonder why he married me if he didn't want to talk"; "I loved him, but anyone could have done a better job of it. He would have figured that out if I gave him the time." But suddenly, in an elegant ending, the narrator's depth of feeling for her ex-husband is made clear: "The suspense would have been too much, waiting around for her to come and take away my treasures: his index finger flying into the air to tap the salt shaker over a ripe tomato; his lean angular face fragmenting in a dance of triangles; his scatting in the shower, his phrasing always atonal."

The story would have been stronger if it had worked into that conflict more -- how love takes away the lover's power -- rather than sitting on the cliche of difficult, intellectual brunette vs. sweet, willing blonde.

The complete verse in Jeremiah is "The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved." Having missed the great yield and salvation her dreams promised her, Thompson's narrator endures adulthood in the bleak second half of the collection. But the book is animated by the tension between the possibility, always present, of one day waking up to a changed life, and all the ways in which these narrators are limited: by a father's prohibitions, by a tendency to fall in love with men who are bad for her, by the husband driving the car.

Close-Ups by Sandra Thompson
University of Georgia Press
ISBN: 978-0820340821
116 pages