July 2013

Rebecca Silber

fiction

The Hypothetical Girl by Elizabeth Cohen

It would be difficult not to relish a story that involves a character listening to the song "London Calling" after leaving her job at a meatpacking company for the evening, on her way to a blind date with a self-proclaimed ugly man, in a town called Horseheads. And perhaps it would be difficult to write such a story. However, Elizabeth Cohen managed such a feat in her exceedingly creative debut collection of fifteen short stories, The Hypothetical Girl. Each story captures ordinary life in such an amazing, deer-in-the-headlights sort of way. Cohen has a knack for seizing characters when they aren't expecting it, when they are vulnerable -- when they are the perfect fodder for a good story. She takes ordinary and she makes it humorous, adventurous, and heartbreaking.

Cohen's character development makes up for what her stories lack in action. The majority of the stories in The Hypothetical Girl are written about women in their thirties and forties lost in the modern tangle of online dating. If you have ever experienced the virtual minefield that is online dating, then you know that very often the online personas -- the glorious in-your-head, I love texting you, IMing you, emailing you personas -- more often than not do not match up with the actual person you may eventually meet. Cohen's dating female characters will quickly become your best friends, the sister you never had. You will find yourself cringing at their awkward moments, shouting at your book page, "No, don't text him!" You will want to hug them. All of the protagonists are seeking approval as they search for love. Many of them are struggling in life, a little pathetic -- very normal. Cohen's use of internal dialogue beckons the reader for empathy; her glistening portrayal of the mundane makes understanding easy to come by.

All of the stories in The Hypothetical Girl are relatively short, quick to read. After breezing through the first few, you may worry that the whole book is going to be full of stories that are quite similar to each other. The first few stories were entertainingly well written, but the characters and their situations interchangeable. Once I got to the fourth story, "Love Underground," I was reassured that Cohen's writing would not disappoint -- there is more variance from then onward.

"Love Underground," one of my favorite stories in the book, tells the story of Alana -- a character who wants "that love thing completely taken care of." Alana desires the "Happily Ever After" that her sister appears to have in the family portrait that sits on a shelf above Alana's sink. Alana recently met a man named Max on the compassionatesingles.com website and looks at the photos on his profile page. Alana chooses to correspond very cautiously, not wanting to ruin her online flirtation by revealing too much, or anything that would make this cyber-relationship disappear. As many of Cohen's characters are, Alana is in love with the potential of the relationship. This story juxtaposes Alana's cautious, distanced, fantasy relationship with Max with the real, but not what it seems, relationship between her sister and her husband, Peter. It is a simple story, but one that goes beyond the words on the pages, into the reader's mind, and sticks around long after the book is shelved.

In another story, "Love, Really," Cohen takes an online relationship and divides it up into terse paragraphs. Gut-wrenching, game-playing, what-is-love paragraphs. This is a story of the disintegration of the feelings of lust and how gradually they are replaced with anticlimactic feelings of love. It is also an extraordinarily simple story, an ordinary story, actually. Ordinary in that we've seen it before, perhaps been there ourselves, but Cohen still manages to bring the reader into this relationship, allowing it to cast a fresh light on one of love's, of life's, greatest frustrations: the quest for true love.

Cohen's creativity becomes even more evident in the final story of the collection, "Stupid Humans," a story about a budding online romance between a deer and a polar bear. A sort of Romeo and Juliet story of the animal kingdom, this relationship is doomed. "There was a lot of inter-species miscommunication as well. Having to do with feeding habits and migration patterns and such. Plus, obviously, the time zone disconnect. When it was midnight in the arctic it was late afternoon for deer in her forest, so you can imagine how cumbersome that could get. Polar bear suggested they do away with texts entirely and stick with skyping." It is odd to find oneself becoming invested in a relationship that is entirely ridiculous. But then the reader realizes that this is Cohen's intention. She sympathetically demonstrates through her originality that many human relationships suffer as much from miscommunication as this ill-fated one between a deer and a polar bear.

One of Cohen's greatest strengths is the sense of humor that she brings to her writing. Her metaphors are smart and random -- you will wonder how she comes up with them. In the first story, "Animal Dancing," Cohen describes a neighborhood as being "a bit down on its heels and striving to be better, like a man who has just been let out of prison and has his first good, real job. A man who dresses very nicely and is on his best behavior, aiming to please." In another story, Cohen describes an Icelandic yak farmer looking for love as "utterly exotic, in a refreshing way. Refreshing like Fresca, like the first snow of the year, like Icees." It is her colloquial references, their familiarity inviting to a reader who has surely tasted Fresca, but would perhaps, never have imagined comparing Fresca to an Icelandic yak farmer.

The Hypothetical Girl is packed full of excruciating online dating moments and interactions; it is these uncomfortable circumstances that make the stories so loveable. What single girl hasn't sent a text that she knew full well she shouldn't have sent? Cohen has a penchant for taking stomach-churning dating incidents and turning them into astute narratives. Throughout The Hypothetical Girl, I found myself cheering for Cohen's characters, hoping for the best -- for that ever-evasive happy ending -- but awkward encounter after awkward encounter proves to be a teachable moment. Love, and life, simply are not that easy.

The Hypothetical Girl by Elizabeth Cohen
Other Press
ISBN: 978-1590515822
256 pages