I have been meaning to read Ben Greenman’s collection of short fiction, What He’s Poised to Do, for months now. Ever since I saw the cover and the details of the book in the Harper Collins Summer Catalog for 2010, I told myself that this is a collection I need to get my hands on. The premise was divine and interesting. These were narratives of sorrows, abandonment, promiscuity and, above all else, a corrupted and compromised definition of love, told through postcards, stories, e-mails and notes exchanged, left behind, or hidden, never to be sent to its addressee. And the cover was fine. It was beautiful. It was so damn gorgeous. I love the way the woman seems to be looking away or about to look, her disheveled hair, the length of her dress, her black socks, the rumpled cover of the bed she’s sitting on, the glow of the lampshade sitting on the wooden bedside table, and the man, a few feet away from her, looking like a character out of TV’s Mad Men, grabbing what I can only assume to be a pack of cigarettes, while feigning indifference at his surroundings. The release date was June of 2010. After the summer, I forgot all about the book, but again, I saw the cover, and immediately, I requested for it.
When I finally got it last week, along with nine other titles, from Harper Collins, I decided to push the next few books I have to read (Carlos Fuentes, forgive me for delaying you the second time this month), delay them a bit and make room for Mr. Greenman. I began the collection inside the colorum on the way to fiction class Saturday Morning. I finished during lunch time at work Tuesday afternoon, inches away from being washed and overturned by an endless wave of melancholia brought about by each story told.
Comprised of fourteen short-stories, What He’s Poised to Do: Stories cuts like a cold knife through the bone. Each story sheds a dim but adequate light on the melancholia of a character, which represents the degrees and variations of the emotion. In the title story, “What He’s Poised to Do,” we see the man who can’t stomach the notion of being with his wife and his son, and so, he abandons them for his profession, sleeps around. He is eventually haunted by the memory of the child he has left behind and the woman he once loved. To deal with these ghosts, he writes notes on the back of postcards, which he either sends or hides in his luggage. In “Hope,” we are introduced to Tomas Tinta who vowed to write a letter Yamila Rodriguez, the woman he loves, every single day of his life. Despite Yamila’s disappearance, despite moving on, despite marriage and the family he already has, he continues on with the task, writing almost two-thousand letters that seemingly stretches to eternity, until he dies. In “Seventeen Different Ways to Get a Load of That,” a son, in the attempt to fix his strained his relationship with his mother, writes a letter, only to be mistaken as the father of the young man who years ago abandoned his family for another woman. In “A Bunch of Blips,” we are given witness to a young woman who tries to satisfy his sexual desire for a critic she has always adored, which ends in her having no recollection of their sexual encounters. And in my favorite story, “What We Believe But Cannot Praise, a forty-year old man visits his old office, only to remember the most pivotal moment in his life, his stint as a filing clerk in a law firm, and the affair he had with his beautiful officemate, Lisa, and how, twenty years after, what happened in that office inhabits him.
The collection is a treatise on sadness, an exploration of an emotion that had baffled, fascinated and entrapped humans for ages, a complexity which individuals again and again have immersed themselves in, which men and woman has attempted, at least once, to flee from. And Greenman presents to us this complexity in such an effortless and straightforward manner. The stories do not try to come to such philosophical conclusions regarding the subject. It does not go through sentences and phrases that aim to shed light on the subject, or confuse us with a dozen possibilities, it simply presents a fictional event in short sentences, with such psychic distance, with such detachment, which is satisfying enough. With this, it hits home, it makes the reader feel and reflect, and that is all one ever needs from fiction. This restraint from the author to simply just go on and on and on regarding sadness, like what Milan Kundera does sometimes in his work, is something which I really appreciate. I guess, this restraint, this control over a piece that is simply inches away from just spilling over to something sentimental, is that which I really love with this collection. The collection becomes utterly disarming. It makes the sadness he wants to convey and present uncorrupted, pure, and the readers’.