intense sensations

Spit and polish

Posted on: August 2, 2011

Best New American Voices 2008Best New American Voices 2008 by Richard Bausch

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

By the end of the third story in this collection, which deals with the long term emotional impact of being sexually molested by an uncle, I was exhausted.

I skipped the fourth story because I didn’t understand the first three paragraphs and came to the fifth story, Quiet Men by Leslie Jamison.

It begins:

“HE was a poet who worked with intricate forms—villanelles and pantoums—but during our month together he spoke quite simply.”

My bookmark got stuck there for a few months, which is a shame, as Quiet Men is a fascinating story.

A lot of the stories from these American creative writing courses seem like they’ve had all the life pressed out of them. The sentences are so smooth and dry that their meaning eludes you. They don’t express any emotion. The emotion is there but it’s buried very deep. Which makes it somehow more literary, I suppose.

Quiet Men, as that first sentence shows, is interested in this tension between what is said and what is felt. It’s written in a very understated way but it’s full of dynamic contradictions. The narrator tells a man she’s just had sex with that she’s not interested in talking about emotions…

“but secretly I wanted him to ask some questions. I wanted to discuss why we wouldn’t talk about our emotions, and what it would mean, and how it would feel.”

The man doesn’t find her attractive and she finds that arousing.

“I liked the thought of him aroused by a woman he found unattractive.”

It’s a very polished story. They’re all very polished stories. I long for something a little bit more raw. When the man rips her bra off and fucks her from behind, I don’t want it to be told to me in a neutral tone through ten layers of polished glass.

But still, Quiet Men is so deeply interesting that it remains interesting in spite of all the polish. The girl, who has had sex with a cruel man as a sort of experiment, turns on him with her own cruel intention:

“After a few nights, I decided to start telling Treat everything he didn’t want to hear. It would be like pressing a bruise to produce a certain, predictable feeling.”

There is a lot of dry humour in this story. She meets a simple minded guy who takes her for a ride in his tow truck and talks in clichés. She tells him it’s nice when people like you. “I was trying to practice saying things that were simple and true,” she writes. Probably because after years of polishing your prose at an American university, it’s a really hard thing to do.

Leslie Jamison has written a novel called The Gin Closet that is probably worth investigating.

I haven’t read the other stories in the collection yet, though. I’m a very slow reader.

View all my reviews


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Books by Vanessa Wu

Lure of the Feminine

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