A Provisional Limbo: Sarah Gerkensmeyer’s What You Are Now Enjoying
Autumn House Press, 2013
Reviewed by W.M. Lobko
The plenty clever title of Sarah Gerkensmeyer’s debut volume of short stories does indeed apply to you, dear reader. The way in which it applies to you, however, reveals itself gradually: this volume is defined as much by restraint and subtlety as it is by surprise. Upon starting the first and titular story in the collection, you may think that these stories will mete out familiar sketches of lost twenty- and thirty-somethings who have, through error or tragedy, lost themselves and now seek as best they can for whatever solace or progress they can secure. Those narrative arcs are here, but they occur in worlds that differ from our own by a single chromosome: we feel an unsettling, almost familial link to characters who somehow enable infants to speak like young psych majors, or who visit their dead husbands by diving into the creek where they drowned, or who hit the airport bar with Wonder Woman for shots of tequila. Gerkensmeyer comes at the big themes slantwise. She timestamps what could have been good ol’ fashioned trial and tribulation with a gentle strangeness that allows you feel the poignancy of everything before you realize how deft it is, or how carefully it comments on the contemporary social moment. Unlike the stories of, say, Borges, Saunders, or Russell—all of whom are touchpoints, forebears, and peers for Gerkensmeyer—these stories depend upon some oddity in the premise, plot point, or setting, but this is never overt. Novelty is never the main attraction—the heart is.
Take the opening story, which gives the volume its title. A trio of close single-gal friends has reached the end of the happy-hour stage of their lives; they’re tired, getting older, and bummed, so they elect to pursue a very unconventional therapy: via a placement agency, female applicants enter “treatment” by which they are paired with breastfeeding infants, who are carried around in special harnesses worn under their shirts. The fashion in which Gerkensmeyer conveys this information is both skillful and critical to the story’s success; here, Jan, the point-of-view character, feels the effects of this new treatment almost instantaneously:
Jan doesn’t get frustrated this morning when the line at Starbucks is stretched out the door. She doesn’t glare at the retreating figure of her supervisor after he tells her that her report on last month’s sales deficits, which he hadn’t told her about until that exact moment, is late. She doesn’t watch the clock all day. She takes an hour-and-a-half for lunch. The sky is bluer. She calls Nina on her way home.
“This works,” she says.
Nina’s voice is husky. For a moment, Jan doesn’t think that it can be her. The traffic is horrible. Jan doesn’t care.
“I’m going to go for a jog,” Nina says. “I feel like I could run a hundred miles.”
A car honks somewhere behind Jan. The suns slices through the windshield and into her eyes. She listens to his little nestling sounds. One of his weak fists presses into her left breast. Her right foot is easy on the brake pedal. Patient. There is no need to hurry.
The compression inherent in the dialogue tips Gerkensmeyer’s hand as a craftsperson of not only considerable skill, but also as a writer of welcome generosity. That Jan improves so markedly from the story’s opening, and so quickly, intrigues and relieves the reader: Wait, is she really driving with him while… ? Does this sort of thing actually…? What sort of unsafe, selfish…? Well, at least it works, thank God, but why didn’t she do this before? One of Gerkensmeyer’s skills is the innocuous, this-is-what-is-given fashion in which she sets forth the precepts and conditions of her world, and it is this skill that allows her to direct our attention to the subtler social dynamics that play out against—indeed, which are all the more fascinating because of—the special conditions that apply to her worlds if not govern them. As time goes on, Jan notices herself noticing others, and herself, and her friends, in brand-new ways. Interestingly, the infant which is hidden underneath her shirt (!) isn’t the focal point of these new observations: the child never has agency, individuality, or even a name. He is, instead, a means to Jan’s new personal and social intelligence; he provides her with the context that she had been, until then, desperately missing:
While walking down the soup aisle at the grocery store, while switching from the left lane into the right lane on an empty highway, while sleeping, Jan will forget that he is there. Then she’ll walk past the long mirror in her downstairs hallway and see a little hand floating there near her chest…People know what’s under there. Like it’s any big surprise.
No, no surprise there. Gerkensmeyer is careful to acquaint the reader with the mores and conventions of this world, with what people know and don’t know about what’s under Jan’s shirts; simultaneously, Gerkensmeyer implicitly comments on the kinds of social judgments and presuppositions with which single mothers are tagged. Without revealing what happens with Jan and her friends, who have also undertaken this therapy, or what develops with Jan’s formerly distant mother, who comes for way more visits than she used to, and who has developed rather particular ideas about grandmotherhood, let’s just say that Gerkensmeyer’s canny narration queries, in equal measure, altruism, Eriksen-esque identity development as it conforms to that psychologist’s notion of the life cycle, and good ol’ fashioned maternal desire-slash-biological imperative. Oh, and it will make you cry.
That’s all in the first story. The hits keep coming in the next few full-length stories. In “Careless Daughters,” we follow the protagonist, known only as “number three,” into a Mormon-esque household, although that religion is never mentioned. Numbers one and two introduce—indoctrinate—number three into the chores and social mores that obtain in that house. At times, Gerkensmeyer’s nuanced social observation rivals Austen’s or Bronte’s:
I bet you have a beautiful voice, number two said. It was late afternoon. The three of them were sitting on the steep stone steps that led up to the front door of the house. It was hot out, and they had been quiet for some time until number two said this, randomly, to number three. You’ve never heard me sing before, have you? number three asked. I’ve heard you hum, number two said, while doing things around the house. Number one leaned back on her elbows and said, So have I. There was the faintest of breezes, and she closed her eyes. I refuse to sing, number three said, standing. Number two swatted at her knees. Please? she whined. Something simple. I bet you’d sound Irish. I bet you have a reedy voice. Yeah, number one mumbled, her eyes still closed. There’s nothing Irish in me, number three laughed. My voice is thick, like a frog’s. She walked down the steps and sat in the grass, facing them. She hated her voice. She had mouthed the words when she was in the chorus of the seventh grade musical, terrified that someone would call her out on it. She wouldn’t sing for them, but she loved that they wanted her to.
The power dynamics between the three women shift unpredictably, and in such a way as to empower the protagonist; her reactions are a fascinating mix of resistance, acceptance, and silent gratitude. Later, her agency increases further yet, but in a way that she doesn’t anticipate and such that she finds herself demanding things from her husband she never thought she’d have the temerity even to mention.
“My Husband’s House” is a hungover, heartbreaking story about how the losses one has incurred in one’s life weigh up against losses that impend. It’s Southern Gothic by way of Borges, O’Connor, and Carver. The narrator’s husband, having died by drowning while “noodling” for catfish by hand, continues to visit his wife weekly. Here again, as in so many of her stories, Gerkensmeyer is deliberate and matter-of-fact. That Kirk, the husband, keeps existing (“living” isn’t quite right, and he isn’t a ghost) in a bedroom accessible only through a submerged tunnel near his favorite “noodling spot” is made less strange, and, as a result, is made into material that can be used for far richer interpersonal observation. It is through that tunnel, by the way, and by swimming to the extreme limits of her physical abilities, that the narrator is able to reach her husband: theirs is a provisional limbo, a period of grey holding-on that mirrors the relationship of Jean and Walt, the hard-drinking couple that the narrator and Kirk were so close to when Kirk was alive. This parallel is what gives this otherwise-quiet story its sense of thrash and discontent. The narrator confesses to her desire for Walt, even as Jean’s confides in the narrator about her profound unhappiness with Walt; we see “a subtle shift in what Jean’s been mourning, from my dead husband to her live one.”
Elsewhere, the volume takes us into realms and lives we might not have anticipated ever existing, but for which we feel an immediate affinity. “Vanishing Point” takes place in a camp run by a shaggy, charming old eccentric up in Minnesota lake country for those who, in the womb, absorbed or otherwise lost a twin. “Wonder Woman in Nebraska” does what it says on the box and much, much more. Each story wrestles with heady, rich, pliable material—dopplegangers, alternate lives and possible selves, vanished avenues, admirable role models, planes heading out of state—and insodoing renews the narrative of discovery, or redemption, or renunciation.
None of this praise could possibly address in full the little masterpiece that is “Hank”—perhaps the best story in the collection—in which an experienced high-school-age babysitter begins sitting for Hank, a conventional-enough tyke who just happens to speak, and only to the narrator, in a manner that’s erudite, observant, concerned, and a little sad:
“I don’t think Paul and Jane love each other anymore.”
For some reason, I’m not surprised to hear Hank refer to his parents by their first names. If Hank were older, what would I say?
“Do you want to talk about it?” I come back to his crib.
“Do you think I’m right?”
Hank, with this aw-shucks precocity that would fit perfectly in a Peanuts strip or a Wes Anderson film, snaps right back into goo-goo mode whenever anyone else is around, a fact that raises a quiet but critical question about access of information, intimacy, affinity, and truth-telling. Hank’s parents’ relationship is on the rocks; the narrator isn’t sure if her relationship with her boyfriend, innocent and enjoyable enough, is going to last. While these other characters are in earshot, Hank does all of the mewling and crying an infant should, but we know, and accept, as does our narrator, that there’s a whole lot Hank isn’t saying, and that there is a whole lot we might not be saying to ourselves as well. You might not notice how skillfully Gerkensmeyer manages the nuances of her worlds, or how subtly she tracks her characters through the strange labyrinthine dioramas she’s built for them, but you will feel a kinship with them: somehow, she’s shown us that we’re wandering in the same maze.
W. M. Lobko’s poems, interviews, & reviews have appeared in journals such as Hunger Mountain, Kenyon Review, & The Paris-American. Current work appears in Seneca Review & is forthcoming in The Literary Review & Boston Review. He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, & was a semi-finalist for the 92Y / Boston Review ”Discovery” Prize. He is a Founding Editor of TUBA, a new review of poetry & art. He studied at the University of Oregon & currently teaches in New York.