Certain American States Has Captivating Writing Wrapped In Ennui—Book Review

Certain American States: a well-written, satisfying bummer.

Certain American States is peculiar. Catherine Lacey’s first short story collection has a similar feel to her last published book, the understated satire The Answers. With a subtle flair for corporate criticism and (anti-)social commentary, Lacey’s new book shows us some sad folks, who are dealing with sad things, but the writing isn’t necessarily sad itself.

The stories have a bitterly humorous quality. The last story, “The Grand Claremont Hotel,” depicts two bureaucratic nightmares: a company (called The Company) gives one of its senior workers the boot with no more than a pink slip. On top of that, the titular hotel demonstrates its surreally incompetent management as it fails to keep its billing department in check. In the short-but-dense piece “The Healing Center,” there’s a flash of frustration directed towards healthcare’s practice of gas-lighting women (seen in The Answers as well). And in “ur heck box,” one woman’s job entails oversight of her organization’s unexplained “Appropriate Behavior Rubrics.”

The odd humor isn’t just limited to this type of satire. In that same story, the first few lines read: “It had become such a horrible, lonely place, she said. And the wind! She swore the wind was worse than she remembered…” If you’ve already described somewhere (New York, in this case) as a horrible place, why would you escalate your description by describing the weather? But the wind, not the loneliness, is what’s worse to this character, and to other characters in this collection. Another example, “Small Differences,” ends with a cat-sitting friend losing the cat in question during a false-alarm fire evacuation. The cat’s quick escape is funny, but not in a happy way—more in a way that you have to think it’s funny to escape how upsetting it is. It’s the literature equivalent of the shrug emoji.

It’s impossible to ignore the social critique in The Answers, but these stories mostly focus on these everyday conflicts vs. grander societal issues. This isn’t a dime-a-dozen certain-American-characters short story collection, though. For these unique characters, passion doesn’t exist. If they’re passionate about anything, it’s only a form of not-hatred they experience, since they’re not capable of feeling much else. To them, sex is tedious, or something with curious qualities to observe, not enjoy. Death is always on the horizon. Sometimes, a close acquaintance or family member has recently died; other times, the characters let thoughts of their own death distract them from living their lives. These characters don’t work to live or live to work—they just work. Even the characters who are working in a field they enjoy are unhappy with their jobs.

Though these characters’ lives aren’t going anywhere, their respective stories always reach that joke-like inevitable conclusion. What I like about how the stories wrap up is the way all the protagonists seem to come to terms with their bad behavior, letting free the existential bitch within. Bridget, the focus of “Family Physics,” lets her family assume she has died because she doesn’t contact them for years. She doesn’t do this to spite them, nor is she running from them; she just doesn’t give a shit. Nikky, the character who cat-sits in “Small Differences,” witnesses the attempted transformation of a former fuck-boy hookup who tries to become an emotionally adjusted man, and she pretends to listen to his anguish without revealing how little she cares. And in “Because You Have To,” the unnamed narrator attempts to manage the pain (or lack thereof?) of her recent breakup by listlessly observing her surroundings and neglecting the dog her ex-boyfriend left behind.  Even with this recurring theme, there’s still a lot of variety in these stories. The characters can’t help being different from each other because you’re looking at them so closely. The phrase “life is in the details” lives in this story collection.

Despite the humdrum lives of these unhappy narrators, Lacey doesn’t let the language in these stories match the never-ending boredom experienced by them.  She is skilled with dialogue, and she has mastered the scene-and-summary balance that keeps each story clear and well-paced. Each conversation serves a purpose (even if that purpose is sometimes to demonstrate someone’s unshakeable ennui). In “Violations”—a notable story featuring truly fine writing—the first few sentences are long, hundreds of words long, but it’s coherent, controlled, and captivating. If you came to Catherine Lacey’s writing for the ennui, you’ll stay for the tidy prose.

Certain American States is (to borrow a phrase from Ralph Wiggum) funny, but not “ha-ha” funny. The stories of these sad characters are a bummer, but the bummer is richly satisfying. Read this collection if you want something a little gloomy, a little different, and just plain fascinating.

Certain American States is available at Macmillan. Hear Catherine Lacey read at Women and Children First on Wednesday, October 10 at 7pm. Read more about the event here.

—Reviewed by Allison Manley

Allison was born in Georgia, raised in northern Illinois, and currently lives in the Edgewater neighborhood. She studied writing and religion at Northwestern University, where she currently works. She likes opera, craft beer, dogs, and perfume. Consume her bitter tweets @hgmanley.

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