As soon as I started reading the opening title story of Suzanne Rivecca’s Death is Not an Option, I wrinkled my nose in clichéd old man fashion and laid the book aside. It was the same way I felt when I made the mistake of rereading Catcher in the Rye a few years ago. When I was a teenager, Holden Caulfield’s smart-ass behavior and language was exactly what I aspired to. Now that I am an old guy, I have so firmly put away childish things I have a hard time finding them; hell, I have a hard time finding my car keys.
But since I have promised to read all six of the shortlisted books for the 2011 Frank O’Connor Short Story Prize and comment on them, I picked it back up and forged ahead in this first-person rant of a Catholic high school senior, Emma, who has been accepted at Brandeis, but is not telling anyone, because her smartness and smart-aleckness has always made her an outcast. She scorns everyone and everything, describing one teacher as an “overgrown and demented Chucky doll,” one classmate as a “sadistic psycho bitch,” and practically everyone as “Mental Giants.
She refers to the uterus as an “impregnable fortress” and “chuckled happily at her ironic wordplay.” And she confesses, but only to the reader, “I have an absurd and disgusting fixation with my own crotch…a secretion-obsessed fetish.” When she tries to use a tampon for the first time, she feels like she is “trying to perform surgery with a Tinkertoy.” At the end of the story, during a touchy-feeling round-robin during which everyone is to tell what they will miss most about Sacred Heart high school, the sadistic psycho bitch talks about how much she will miss Emma, and then, I’ll be damned, the smart, tough, sassy, pain-in-the-ass Emma begins to cry, thinking about what lies in store for her, admitting that she does not know who she is unless she is fighting, that she cannot survive except in a hostile environment. And yes, that is supposed to redeem Emma from her Holden-like sense of the futility and hypocrisy of the whole lousy world, if you really want to know.
This smart-talking female figure, now age 21 and named Katrina, has matured somewhat by the second story, “Yours Will Do Nicely.” “Big words were my province,” she says, and often speaks in a tone of deadpan mock-gravity. After a one-night pickup with a guy who writes her an appreciative letter, she opens up to him in a long, frank and seemingly honest response that she fantasizes will change his life. She imagines him “marveling at how smart and insightful I was, my clever turns of phrase, the forthrightness of my disclosures.” Later when she does not hear from him, she cringes at what she has written, seeing her revelations as “self-important, performative, my metaphors strained, the crude obviousness of my need and self-ennobling loneliness.”
But as I read this second story about an outwardly brittle but inwardly vulnerable young woman with a snarky mouth, I realized two things: First, although I did not like this character, I did like Rivecca’s prose. It is the hard-earned, polished nature of her writing that kept me going. It was this sentence at the end of “Yours Will Do Nicely” that got me:
“And even though I knew these things weren’t the exact truth, they were a variation of it, and they felt true as I wrote them down. And they still felt like the truth—as if on some deeper, irreproachable level, those incidents hatched me like a newborn chick and I’d crawled from the wreckage of them with a bright new face. They had to have happened, because if they hadn’t, how could I explain the unhappy accident of myself.”
Language, carefully chosen and arranged in practically perfect sentences redeems other stories in the book that, on the surface, seem typically “ripped from the headlines” fodder for made-for-TV Opra movies. The longest story, the two part “Very Special Victims,” is about a young woman molested by her uncle as a child; “Look, Ma, I’m Breathing is about a young woman being stalked by an erstwhile landlord. But in neither of these two stories is the emphasis on social issues, but rather on the complex involvement of the central character in what seems to be a made-for-TV case of sociopathic behavior, “ripped from the headlines.” And what makes this involvement so complex and engaging for the reader is the careful structuring of Rivecca’s prose.
I am tempted simply to complete this discussion by quoting sentences from these two stories, for it is not plot, but prose that makes them so impressive. Both are told in the third person, so it is the voice of Suzanne Rivecca that we get, not the smart-alecky tones of a young female character. And it is a very fine voice indeed. For example, when the young girl tells about being abused by her uncle, we get this sentence:
The story is complicated by the girl’s feeling that she is not completely innocent in the abuse, but this is not a simple made-for-TV-movie presentation of female guilt about leading men on. This following sentence very profoundly tries to capture it:
“In the weeks after she told, something in her overturned, like lifting a rock and finding the ground underneath spongy with grubs, and she stayed up for hours bending God’s ear, fetisihizing prayer, clinging to His coattails and wrapping her arms around the pillars of his legs, stroking Him like a rabbit’s foot rubbed to a bald knuckle.”
“Kath thought telling would stop everything. Not just the uncle’s nocturnal groping, but her own weak love for the role she played with him, the novelty persona of cosseted scamp: how she had craved and courted the attention of the uncle before his hugging and cuddling and teasing snowballed into strange, fast-breathing caresses, that she could not return, that blanked her out of the scenario completely even though she was the centerpiece of it, there but not there, like the eye of a hurricane.”
She tells three men about the abuse. The first stops sleeping with her right away. The second asks a lot of questions, treating her “like the burial site of an ancient civilization; he dug for clues with a sweaty-palmed reverence and did not stop until he held it triumphantly aloft, that sordid tidbit like a saber tooth.” The third tells her it is not her fault and wants her to go to the policeThe story ends with a meeting with the uncle who wants to apologize, reassuring her that none of it was her fault; however, much to his puzzlement, she tells him she would feel better if it did have something to do with her. The ending of the story seems rigged to me, but once again, Rivecca’s prose redeems. She imagines herself lying on the pavement with police looming over her:
How grateful she would be as she waited for them to deliver their most merciful line, that rote benediction bestowed on every single person in trouble: the insane and the reasonable, homeless and naked, innocent ad guilty, uncle and nieces. You have the right to remain silent.
In “Look Ma, I’m Breathing,” the young woman, Isabel, is an associate professor of English looking for an apartment. After being turned down for a house she loves, the man renting a small house, begins writing her letters, at first romantic and then abusive, until she gets a court hearing to issue an injunction against him contacting her. The story line is simple enough, but the prose that describes the character as a child is striking and hard to resist: “She was an ideal vessel: dedicated, saturnine of aspect, with a mournful face and an eerie, shell-shocked poise… She was an eccentric, lonely child, given to soulful gazing and cryptic pronouncements.” Isabel has written a memoir in which she confesses that as a child she lied about seeing the Virgin; as a result, she is almost denied her request for the injunction. And like the women in these stories, the man, who has presented himself as obnoxious, is chastened and reveals his vulnerable self. The story ends with Isabel blocked in trying to write her second book, putting her editor off with promises and excuses. She replays the trial over and over in her mind in this well sculpted concluding sentence:
“How she opened her mouth and things came out, elegant and lucid things, and she was like the nightingale in the fairy tale placed in front of the king, watching respect and recognition dawn on the judge’s face—this doll-like girl, she speaks so well!--…and surrounded by the blank walls of her new apartment, she held the scotch in one hand and knew it was useless, knew that nothing would ever come out of her more purely or clearly than things like this: these distilled episodes, these illuminated lamentations, sculpted in all the right places, these testimonies of harm.”
In his book, How to Write a Sentence, and How to Read One, Stanley Fish begins with an anecdote by Annie Dillard from her book The Writing Life, about a colleague being asked by a student, “Do you think I could be a writer?” “Well,” the writer said, ‘do you like sentences’?” Fish quotes Dillard on the importance of carefully structured sentences: “When you write you lay out a line of words. The line of words is a miner’s pick, a woodcarver’s gouge, a surgeon’s probe. You wield it and it digs a path you follow.” Fish says that in a letter once, Gustave Flaubert described himself as being in a semi-diseased state, “itching with sentences.”
Suzanne Rivecca’s writing has already received a Pushcart Prize, a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, and a fellowship from the MacDowell Colony. She is a former Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford, a Radcliffe Institute Fellow, and currently a Resident of the Rome Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. I hope she remains in that Flaubert semi-diseased state, “itching with sentences.” I wish her luck in her competition for the 2011 Frank O’Connor Short Story Prize.
In a few days, I will talk a bit about the fourth book on the Frank O’Connor Award shortlist, Colm Toibin’s collection of stories, The Empty Family.