Wait Till You See Me Dance: Stories
(Graywolf Press, 2017)
It's been said that most people live small lives of quiet desperation. While this is true of many of the people in her stories, Deb Olin Unferth writes their desperation large. Reviews of Unferth’s new collection, Wait Till You See Me Dance, describe her writing as concise and exacted with precision, as if stories are surgery (pen as scalpel) and Unferth a surgeon. In many ways, she is a surgeon—of words, of language, of other people's pain and disappointment—but surgery implies a distance, a removed stance that ignores the visceral immediacy of much of Unferth’s fiction.
Some critics have a need to compare music or writing to others’ sounds, others’ words: a band “sounds like early Nirvana," or Writer A’s stories are just like Writer B’s. Unferth's writing has been compared variously to Lydia Davis, Lorrie Moore, and in several instances, George Saunders. Saunders even blurbed Unferth's new collection. But Unferth is not Davis or Moore, nor is she Saunders; there is something else going on in these stories.
When The New Yorker interviewed Luke Mogelson about his story “Peacetime,” he cited as his influences both Unferth and Denis Johnson. Writing this review in the days after Johnson's death, his work is heavy on my mind. At a long-ago writing retreat, Johnson gave me two pieces of writerly advice: "always tell the truth," and "love your characters, no matter what." Perhaps it is these two elements that I see in Unferth's work that bring it above obvious comparisons. For many critics, Unferth writes short pieces so she must be like Lydia Davis; she writes with dark humor about American life so she must be like George Saunders. Certainly these elements are in the thirty-nine stories in her new collection but there is so much more than brevity, bitterness, and dark humor.
Her first novel Vacation and her memoir Revolution: The Year I Fell in Love and Went to Join the War were both rapidly devoured and eagerly shared. Vacation is one of those books I kept buying and giving to other people. But most people I spoke to about Unferth either hadn't read her or didn't seem to understand what I was on about. It's a little like loving an indie band that most of your friends either haven't heard of or don't really “get.” It can be a proud but lonely place. These days I have more writerly friends who read a lot of books and I assume many of them have read Unferth. Although you can learn a lot about craft from reading her work, Unferth is not just a writer’s writer. Her work is accessible and her voice both amiable and sharp; sometimes she’s downright funny.
Wait Till You See Me Dance is separated into four parts with thirty-nine stories varying between the very short (“Fear of Trees” is only one paragraph) and lengthy, more traditional narratives. Her best-known story in the collection, “Voltaire Night,” first published in the Paris Review (2015) and winner of a Pushcart Prize, focuses on a creative writing teacher who tries to enliven her adult writing class by playing a “game” based loosely on Candide. At fifteen pages, it is one of the longest pieces in the collection and operates on several levels including the narrator’s story (a depressed writing teacher who likes to drink) and the stories shared by her students. When one student shares a particularly harrowing tale, the narrator tells us that the “game” is over, and she is forced to acknowledge her own life isn’t so bad. Throughout, Unferth is masterful in combining the varied narratives and voices within the story to create both a compelling work of fiction and a lesson in the craft of writing.
In perhaps the strongest piece in the collection, "Wait Till You See Me Dance," we are given a narrator who starts her narrative with "I know when people will die." How can we not continue after an opening line like that? The nameless narrator is a failing adjunct charged with teaching writing to foreign students who barely speak English. She's lost interest in her marginal teaching job but then, she falls in love with a student and his music—a music that creates a deep shift in her. “I felt like I couldn’t breathe for a moment, like my lungs were being pressed. I saw the emotional deadness in me and I saw it lift. It was temporarily gone.” But the student’s English is hopeless, and the narrator tells us she knows he’ll be sent back to his nameless country to likely die in a nameless war. So she decides to find a way to help him stay and asks us, “You think it’s so easy doing what is right?” Through a series of misadventures, the narrator finds herself driving the school’s unlikeable office assistant to a “Native American dance.” On the way, the office assistant falls down a well and the narrator refuses to help her unless she agrees to help the music student pass his English exam. What should be almost a slapstick narrative becomes darkly poignant when we learn that not only does the music student survive but the office assistant “fixes” his passing grade shortly before she “leaped off the building” to her death. This story contains many of the elements that have made me a fan of Unferth’s work: characters that are both unlikeable and yet compelling, a narrative that is both brutally realistic and oddly shaped, a refusal to sink to melodrama or the superior writerly stance that is common in so much modern American fiction. Unferth does not say, “Look at these pathetic people, aren’t they funny? Aren’t we so much better than they are?” but instead tells us “Leave the poor assistant alone…Would you give her a little space?” The story ends with the narrator asserting herself, “I may spend my life loving people who never loved me … but I stepped around with her. I danced.”
This idea of self-assertion, of unlikeable characters resisting their own narratives, runs throughout Unferth’s stories. These people are not figures of fun held up for our amusement but instead, characters who are loved in spite of or perhaps because of their faults and failures. A mother cannot control or connect with her teenage son and so kidnaps her sister’s pet turtles, failing at caring for them as well. In “Likable,” a woman realizes she has become unlikable and that she is even less likable because “she was now forty-four, not twenty.” But she asserts herself by ceasing to resist being unlikable instead, “each morning when she opens her mouth she is unlikable, proudly so.” It is this refusal to succumb that is central to so many of Unferth’s characters: they are desperate, often unlikable, and yet, they remain. In some instances, they make life-altering decisions, but often, they simply endure.
In one of the shorter pieces in the collection, “Husband,” Unferth gives us a paragraph that starts with “If you should have an ex-husband” and with that gives a full narrative of the ways relationships work or do not work until, “you slowly take a step back … until you find you are on a path walking the other way.” And the narrative has shifted from conflict, through change, to conclusion in only one paragraph.
Along with the master classes in writing that many of her stories provide, there are also comments on the life of the writer. Not in the dull, pedestrian “let me write about myself and how special I am” way that so many writers use, but in brutal small slices that show isolation, frustration, self-doubt, and darkly comic moments in the life of a writer. “My Daughter Debbie” is a brilliantly funny narrative of a mother’s failure to connect with her writer daughter. The piece starts with “She doesn’t have any skills.” We are told of the mother’s efforts to instill a need for practical skills, a direction in life, a good man, and of the daughter’s abject failures: “Years went by and she seemed to be doing nothing.” The daughter “moves around,” goes through relationships, starts and then quits therapy, “she just quits everything she does” the mother tells us. And then, “The next thing we knew she was calling herself a writer.” This is questioned by the mother and the family but then, there is a shift and the last two paragraphs of the story detail the mother’s love for her child, “she was always something to me. She was my favorite…” There is at the heart of this story, as with so many of Unferth’s narratives, a failure to connect, a failure to understand, and the very human pain that comes from that failure.
Some of these stories are uncomfortable reads (“The First Full Thought of Her Life,” “Pet,” “Final Days”) but all are working toward that central premise, “always tell the truth.” When critics compare Unferth to Saunders or Davis, it seems too easy. There is a different tone to Unferth’s work, a humor that works in tandem with deep compassion, and a vulnerability both in the narratives and these characters that shows Unferth does love them, “no matter what.”