I recently read Ben Greenman‘s forthcoming What He’s Poised to Do and no book in recent memory has impressed me as much as this lush and thoroughly engaging short story collection. I am not a good book reviewer. All I ever want to do is talk about how much I loved a book and that’s exactly what I’m going to do here. I have no interest in being critical about the reading I do for pleasure. I am breaking my no review policy (which, admittedly, I break so often as to really bring into question the point of having a policy) to talk about this book because it is just that damn good.
Writers are often enamored by epistolary narratives and that is certainly understandable. Letters are interesting. Letters are important and romantic and confessional and all manner of things. There was a time when the only way people could communicate across great distances was through letters. Many people lament when it meant something significant to put pen to paper, to put paper in an envelope, to apply a stamp, to send, to wait, to read, and respond. I have never been much of a traditional letter writer. My penmanship is terrible, and generally evokes a serial killer vibe. My hand always starts to hurt after a few moments. I enjoy writing long, interesting e-mails to friends and others but I have no real nostalgia for traditional letter writing anymore. I don’t know that I ever did. What He’s Poised to Do, however, moved me so much I immediately wanted to write a dense, heartfelt letter to everyone I’ve ever known.
Each of the stories in What He’s Poised to Do involves letter writing in some form or fashion. Sometimes, the letters in these stories are a means of remembrance, of recalling shared moments, past mistakes, personal failings. Other times, the letters are confessions of wrongs and obsessions or intellectual salvos or a means of seduction or cries for help or a way of reaching out and saying, “I am here. Please see me. Hear me. Feel me. Know me.” The design of the book reinforces the epistolary quality with postmarks marking the beginning of each story. It is a subtle yet compelling and charming detail.
With blogs and social networking and author websites, it has become very easy to know too much about a writer and their work. I was not very familiar with Ben Greenman before I read this book so for once I had no idea what to expect from a book. I must admit that was kind of nice. I consulted Dr. Google after I read the book and learned Greenman is pretty fancy and What He’s Poised to Do is an expanded version of this sexy little project, Correspondences, from Hotel St. George Press. I really want to get my hands on this–what an interactive and imaginative way of packaging a book. Anyway.
Short story collections are often uneven but I loved every story in What He’s Poised to Do. The range of subjects and eras Greenman covers in these stories is astounding. Stories are set in outer space and during the 19th century. Greenman’s characters find themselves in Nebraska and France and Cuba. The prose is often dense but always deliberate. There is a strong erotic undercurrent to many of the stories and infidelity often figures prominently. In almost every story, a lot happens and nothing happens, creating what are, my favorite kinds of stories. More than anything, the stories in What He’s Poised to Do reveal characters who are intimately aware of and honest about their flaws in one way or another. Some of the characters in these stories are unapologetically irredeemable. That intimacy and honesty is refreshing and hypnotic and ultimately, endearing.
In the title story, an unhappy man in an unhappy marriage sends or tries to send his wife and son postcards while he has an affair with a young woman in a hotel. This is not a new story but the way Greenman relays these circumstances is unique and a little haunting. All I could picture was this sad married man trying to be open with himself and his family by writing the truth of his feelings on postcards. Every time I tried to muster some sympathy, I couldn’t help but think his attempts were a little pathetic, that even sadder than the cliché of his dissatisfaction was how little heart he had to share if the best he could do was try to fill the very limited space of a postcard.
I would be hard pressed to pick a favorite story in this collection but the plainly told “Barn” would be my top choice. There’s a woman. She has a sister, two years her senior, with whom she is, in her own way, quite close. They live in a small Nebraska town living small town lives and their relationship is, as relationships between sisters often are, complicated and powerful and inescapable. While a great many things happen in “Barn,” (marriages, affairs, pregnancies, death) the story is always, always about the sisters. “Our favorite colors are one color, blue. Even two sisters who are very different can be similar. You should know that, too, because it may explain the way things went.” Everything beyond these sisters and their relationship is merely a detail–a compelling detail, but a detail nonetheless. “Barn” is filled with silences. So much is implied through the storytelling. It requires a bit of work on the part of the reader but the whole of the story is magnificent, textured, overwhelming.
“Seventeen Different Ways to Get a Load of That,” takes place in Lunar City, during an alternate reality where the moon has been colonized. A woman and her two children move to the moon after a marriage disintegrates. There’s a subtle humor in the lunar setting. In a science fiction story, there would be a lot of attention to lunar life, the details of living without gravity but in this story, as with many of the stories in this collection, the extraordinary details are treated as ordinary and the ordinary details become extraordinary.
The year is 1928 in “Against Samantha,” where a man is engaged in an intense, intellectually satisfying correspondence with his fiancée’s mother, Edith and an intense, physically satisfying relationship with Edith’s daughter. The story is filled with intricate wordplay and perfect, perfect prose and a callousness that is both repulsive and attractive. As the narrator makes love to his betrothed, he thinks:
I was powerless to think of anything but what she was showing me, and I yet I thought mainly of her mother, Edith, who was at that moment sitting in her drawing room in London, innocently considering the recent declaration of Malta as a British dominion, entirely unaware of the fact that I was accessioning her daughter.
I mean, really! The entire collection is lousy with such lovely turns of phrase. What He’s Poised to Do is a sophisticated, smart and sexy collection of stories. I want everyone I know to read this book very soon so we can talk about it.
An interesting side project to this collection is the blog, Letters to Characters, where real people write letters to fictional characters. Check that out, too.