Portraits of a Few of the People I’ve Made Cry Christine Sneed (University of Massachusetts Press)
The short story collection is the bastard child of publishing, seldom mentioned unless it does something that can’t be ignored. The conventional thinking among commercial publishers is that they’re hard to define and even harder to market.
Yet every few years an unignorable bastard comes along. Junot Diaz created a Dominican male immigrant archetype in his raw yet suave 1996 collection, Drown; 11 years later he resurrected it for his debut novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, and won a Pulitzer Prize. In 2000, the honor of a Pulitzer was accorded Interpreter of Maladies, Jhumpa Lahiri’s debut collection about love and homesickness of the immigrant Indian variety. And American Salvage, Bonnie Jo Campbell’s collection focused on working-class rust belters, was a 2009 National Book Award finalist.
If short story collections rarely break through into the mainstream, they’re still crucial to the development of new talents. Without Drown, there would be no Oscar Wao. So some small presses (like local darling OV Books) specialize in them and some awards are devoted to them—including the Grace Paley Prize in Short Fiction, which offfers $5,000 and publication of the winner’s manuscript. Last year it went to local writer and DePaul teacher Christine Sneed for Portraits of a Few of the People I’ve Made Cry, which is out now.
Sneed’s collection doesn’t sing the immigrant song or highlight an underrepresented voice. Most of its ten stories deal with heterosexual romance. But don’t dare think of it as chick lit. Neither victims nor heroes, Sneed’s protagonists are women caught between the realities of life and their expectations of love.Most of them are smart enough to know that a man won’t rescue them from themselves, but that glimmer of hope is far more alluring than the bitter pill of cynicism.
In the opener, “Quality of Life” (anthologized in Best American Short Stories 2008), a young woman named Lyndsey has an affair with a much older man about whom she knows nothing except his sexual preferences and that when he calls on her she’ll meet him because “it was breathtaking—in part for her shame, in part for her astonishing pleasure.” “Mr. Fulger” keeps his real identity from Lyndsey and insists on paying her in cash or presents after each tryst. He’s rich, she’s an artist, the money helps, and so she rationalizes the arrangement. “Certain words she did not allow herself to consider—concubine, whore, slut.” But then Fulger, who travels a lot, urges her to relocate to a more convenient city, offering double the salary she gets designing posters for movie studios. What do you think she does? In 12 pages, I felt I knew Lyndsey well enough to console and admonish her.
There’s a paradox inherent in putting together a short story collection. No two tales should sound the same, yet there ought to be some thematic resonance, however subtle. The author should show her range, but the collection has to be more than just a showcase. Sneed reconciles the contradictions in Portraits, making each piece distinct even when its theme feels familiar.
“Quality of Life” is one of four stories where the age difference between lovers spans decades. “Twelve + Twelve” derives its title from the formula Brynne, the narrator, prefers to use rather than state the 24-year divide between her and her boyfriend outright. The man is a pal of her father who lost his own daughter before pursuing her, but Sneed knows better than to succumb to Freudian mumbo jumbo. “We were a couple,” Brynne says, “one whose future together was as unpredictable as most couples.”
Rather than focus on what drives lovers apart, Sneed explores the more difficult and illuminating question of what keeps them together—whether it’s desperation or beauty, foolishness or something ineffable. There are no overreaching statements on love. That nebulous sensation is seen as particular and peculiar to each relationship.
Sasha, the 55-year-old narrator of “By the Way,” is aware that her mind is fading along with her beauty and worries about driving her 37-year-old lover, Miles, away. But age isn’t as important to him as fidelity. Referring to Sasha’s former husband, with whom she still runs a dance studio, Miles asks, “I would like to know if Leslie is still allowed some part of you that I want only for myself.” I don’t know any guys who talk like that, but then I don’t know any guys as romantic and heart-struck as Miles, who’s realized enough to seem alive beyond the page.
Not every story works. The last one in the collection, “Walled City”, concerns a mayor who’s been banished from the rigid social structure she once served. The rules of decorum Sneed propounds are amusingly absurd, but an extended bit about a complaint hotline employing only one operator falls flat. The parable doesn’t do much, but its novelty impressed me anyway: I’d rather a writer try something different than just repeat what we already know she does well.
Other stories deal with belonging and with characters attempting to live with their choices. In “For Once in Your Life” a newcomer from the big city decides to remain outside the catty power structure of a small-town women’s group—as long as she knows she can join if she wants. In “Alex Rice Inc.,” a teacher frets when a movie star enrolls in her class, only to find herself charmed by someone else who can make better use of her attentions: the star’s bodyguard. “A Million Dollars,” meanwhile, is one of those stories that shows Sneed’s range. It concerns a 19-year-old waitress who has to weigh the sleaze factor involved in letting a customer take modeling photos of her against the benefits of inspiring jealousy in her on-the-sly boyfriend the cook, whose “public girlfriend . . . is a nutjob who thinks that every guy on the planet wants to boff her.”
Honors like the Paley Prize might win an author the esteem—or envy—of her peers. And the shiny little dust cover stickers that sometimes come with them may help make some sales. But Portraits has the authority, range, and freshness to deserve the next level of success: getting passed from one reader’s hand to another’s.