(Soft Skull Press, 2010)
The stories of Janice Shapiro’s debut collection, Bummer, are told in a voice so natural and earnest, in sentences that so resemble the searching way we speak, you may just forget you’re reading a book. The syntax sometimes feels as if it will not hold, as if the sentences are about to come apart in mid-flight, but they don’t—they keep feeling forward, the way we all must when trying to say something important.
The stories happen to feature female characters, but they’re more about a certain kind of modern tragicomic figure, whose foolishness and smarts are too entangled for even her to tell apart. These women do their best to live life sensibly, but of course have no idea what that life would look like. They make mistakes, often man-related, and struggle, again and again, to see themselves properly to scale in the world or room or life they happen to inhabit.
Much of their befuddlement plays out via impulsive sexual encounters—with strangers in hotels, with bosses and teachers and teenagers, for money (just once)—that leave them unsure of how to feel. A lot of awkwardness ensues and a good deal of amusement at the expense of these eleven women, but this is one of those rare collections where heart and humor work in tandem, one gently nudging the other forward.
The predicaments these characters face—which form so organically out of everyday life that, thinking back, you can hardly recall how you got there—are almost always heartbreaking. A lonely middle-aged barista’s crush on a spiky-haired teenager (“Old Bean”). A pair of sisters led to believe they’ll soon have the swimming pool of their dreams (“1966”). A young woman caught up in the belief that disaffected is the only safe way to be (“Ennui”). A woman who discovers her impromptu lover has left a tip (the title story). A stay-at-home mother who secretly spends time in the middle of the day in the impeccable home of her son’s best friend—just for the relaxation it affords (“In Its Place”).
The emotional blows are usually served underhandedly, quietly. You’ll laugh aloud, or smile with the pleasure of recognizing familiar selves, but as you come to the final sentence that comedic layer often dissolves into thin air and you’re left, looking around, holding someone’s heart. These are naked, shameless stories that endear themselves to us by holding back nothing. If you knew one of these people—and you may—you’d want to help them. You’d send them a note just about every month—not just out of concern but also in order to give yourself, in the midst of your own ridiculous life, a reason to laugh.
Toward the end of “Ennui” the main character lies on the ground outside a nightclub after having bumped into her ex-boyfriend and his new, violent girlfriend. “To his credit,” we’re told, “he did stop and turn back and look at me for, I’d say, a whole five seconds before he shrugged in a sheepish way and said, ‘Well, see ya around sometime,’”—and this is the kind of sad humor on which these stories run.
You have to wonder, reading these stories, whether readers have come to require this kind of delicate and beautifully managed balance of humor and personal pain—the balance perfectly captured in the collection’s one-word title. Of course this isn’t a question raised solely by these stories—nor is it a new one (see Comedy of Errors and its wake)—but it is an especially essential one for the literature of the moment. In many ways Bummer continues in a vein already well established by the likes of David Sedaris and a million other heartbreaking humorists—one in which the nastier stuff is always served with a generous portion of wit.
When I closed this book and looked again at the woman on the cover falling backward I thought: Jesus Christ, these people are falling apart—they’re really quite sad! And yet reading their stories I felt very little sadness. Maybe it’s just me, a man locked in my own manly experience, or maybe this just isn’t a very vicarious read—more something you watch than something you feel—and, if so, there’s nothing wrong with that, right?
By keeping these stories on the lesser side of embodied, by sparing us the feel of the hard pavement against our backs as a person we once loved walks away with someone new, Shapiro makes it easier for us to enjoy what isn’t, for those going through it, too enjoyable. I guess the only question I have is: Should she be doing this? Because if capable, crafty writers like her aren’t going to make us taste how bad things really can be, who will?