Well, Not Everything: On Justin Taylor’s Everything Here is the Best Thing Ever

Published by Harper Perennial, Everything Here is the Best Thing Ever, which is Justin Taylor’s first collection of stories, manages to come off rather short (and don’t let me start with the utterly misleading title). I went into this collection with the hopes of being “wowed” with the narratives he has written. With a blurb from Padgett Powell that describes his stories as something that pays debt to Donald Barthelme, and pieces that possess a “strange undertow of Phillip Roth,” one cannot help but have much enthusiasm when one begins to read the works. I was fooled. Severely fooled.

Admittedly, I did enjoy the narratives, at least at some point. I was a bit amused by its hipster appeal and its characterization of the cultural movement that, for the first time in history, is suddenly thrown into a negative light. Here we have narratives that namedrop critics and philosophers like Derida, Lacan, and Nietzsche (a pastime of hipsters), stories which give cultural references to pop music icons, like The Pixies, and fictional realities where junkies, pseudo-artists, juveniles who believe that they are creating  “high-art,” anarchists who do not create any action that can be called anarchic, men and women who have open-relationships ( those who are in a “yes, we’re in a relationship, but we screw other people in various other acrobatic positions” kind of shitty setup), coke addicts, Goth girls who obsess over witchcraft, and working stiffs who try to break out of their formal and dull lives at night by getting fucked up, literally and metaphorically, exist. It’s amusing to see them. The effort made to satirize them is entertaining. It’s enjoyable to read about them, to laugh at them, to pity them, or to feel compassion for the ordeals they are going through.

The language and narration used is also something which I rather relished in. I like its contemporary feel, its sheer informal and conversational tone. It’s almost as if a friend is telling me this story, and it gives much comfort for the reader. But that’s just that. I didn’t like anything else, nor did I find anything intellectually and literarily engaging.  There’s just something, a great “something”, that lacked.

The premises are interesting, granted that. But the attack made on them is childish, and frankly, rather shallow. The characters are flat: drunken kids who stare at the bleakness of the world, lacking the intention and willpower to do something about their destitute and devestating lives, which, from a certain point of view, is not that bad. If the intention of any fiction is to highlight and explore a specific aspect of the human condition/experience, this stories barely does it.  They are initiation/coming of age stories that don’t have any initiation or grand coming of age epiphany at all. And they’re too short, just too damn short, when there is enough space to go around and explore more these characters. The stories just lack, just lack a lot of the things one looks for in a good short story or in an adequate collection.

There is a great writer somewhere inside Justin Taylor and I just hope to God this writer comes out in The Gospel of Anarcy, his first novel, which just came out earlier this year.

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The Nature of Secrets and Lies in Deborah Willis’ Vanishing and Other Stories

 

“If the study of words has taught Peter—and therefore me—anything it’s the ease of lying. Each word is a sham, a small, meaningless collection of sound that pretends to be not: cat, house, husband. All fops at a costume bowl. And everyone accepts this banter as if words, dressed in their masks and cloaks of consonants, were not pretending. We are all complicit, Peter once told me: Just by saying good morning to a neighbor, one participates in the great lie. And then, of course, there’s the pun on lying, But maybe you know this.”

-From “Traces,” (Page 72)

 

In Deborah Willis’ Vanishing and Other Stories, the reader is given the privilege to observe and explore the structure of lies and deceptions. Composed of fourteen stories, published by Harper Collins, it is a debut collection that renders masterfully the labyrinth of lies and presents how, inevitably, overtime, all secrets are uncovered, all lies are unleashed, only to invade and alter the lives of its keepers and all those who are part of the great design.

In “Vanishing,” the protagonist, Tabitha, looks to her childhood and her adolescent years to make sense of why her father, Nathan, suddenly disappeared from her family’s life. Constantly haunted by Nathan’s memory, through the volumes of plays that he wrote before his departure, Tabitha revisits the moments she spent in the attic of their home, in her father’s study, while he wrote, and the prevalent presence of Lev, a friend and colleague of Nathan, in their lives. Years go by, and Tabitha is reunited with Lev, for a few seconds, in a street, in the middle of buying groceries. And in the short time spent exchanging greetings, Tabitha arrives at a realization, which is withheld from the readers. The story concludes in a very beautiful ambiguous note, hinting that Tabitha may have already found out why her father disappeared years ago and the heartbreak behind it. But she goes on, without having to deal with the grand epiphany, participating in a lie which altered the way her life unfolded.

In “The Weather,” the broken life of a single father is given light. Left by his wife, the protagonist,  is left to take care of Edith, his only daughter. When Edith begins bringing home one of her friends, the beautiful Rae, the loneliness that he has kept at bay for so long begins to weigh down on him, strangely producing an attraction and affinity for the rebellious guest that sits at his table and wears his wife clothes. As the relationship deepens, the readers are given the remnants of the man who drove his away, and the emergence of a newer man, one that the family needed in the past.

The third story in the collection, “Escape,” we are told of the moving tale of a doctor, Tom, who just lost his wife to a terrible disease. In his attempts to deal with the tragic loss, he finds himself enthralled by the lights and the thick air of thrill and excitement inside a casino. There, Tom meets a woman in her late-forties, a black jack dealer, a woman who “runs her table with serious efficiency,” which he finds mysterious and captivating. The protagonist, as he spends night-after-night in the casino, in the black jack table, losing all his money, losing control over his life, is enamored by the woman’s hands, which to him is, “not a young woman’s hands: the skin is creased, and veins reach down her wrists like dark ropes.” Pretty soon, his addiction deepens, and spirals out of control, only to realize that the gambling and his obsession for the woman is simply nothing more but a denial of the reality he has to come to grips with after his wife’s death.

“Traces,” on the other hand, is a 2nd person point-of-view narrative that focuses on the protagonist, Mimi, directly addressing the woman who’s having an affair with her husband: us, or more appropriately, the “narrative-you.” Highly reminiscent of Lorrie Moore’s short story from Self-Help, “How to be An Other Woman,” the story follows Mimi’s attempts to discover the identity of the woman sleeping with her husband. Assisted by her neighbor and dear friend April, she visits the home of the “other woman,” observing the surroundings, immersing herself in the normality of things. Mimi steals one of the woman’s kitties, a petty revenge, just so she could feel how it is to have something stolen from her. At the end of the story, she encounters an even greater deception as she looks over towards April’s house, and returns to the other woman’s home to give the creature she stole back.

And in the poignant “Sky Theatre,” the fleetingness of beauty and youth is explored as a young woman explores her own life and future when the most popular and beautiful student in her school is suddenly put into a wheel chair after a horrible accident.

It is a debut collection enjoyable, and at time, utterly heartbreaking. The language Willis’ employs is precise and clear-cut. It does not play games nor does it reel in anguish and pain to invoke a cathartic reaction from the readers. All it intends to do is to tell the story and that is what it does. Although I appreciate this authorial gesture, this also becomes one of the minor problems of the stories. In some parts, in its strong desire to simply tell us the story, it robs us of the sensual experience we can get from the text, like the poetic feel of the locale, the seething heat of hatred or of passion or the coldness of loneliness and solitude. It sometimes run through, and does not, in the words of Umberto Eco, “linger in the fictional woods.”

The true gem of the collection can be seen in the character that inhabits its stories. Willis’ characters have the capability to become inviting, despite their mysterious and elusive nature. At the beginning of story, even with all my attempts to try and look at the text critically, I cannot help but invest in these characters. They are simple, normal, average even, therefore understandable. But their secrets, their secrets that anyone could keep, that anyone could possess, emotional, deadly, shallow, traumatic or otherwise, complicates them, makes them complex and infinitely interesting, We go along for the ride and hope we share the secrets with them. And we learn a thing or two about secrets, about how, even in the quietest of moments, in the presence of stillness, the greatest secrets, one that could destroy lives and relationships, are created. We learn that there are some truths which are better abandoned as secrets, that there are some people, like the protagonist of “Vanishing” and “Traces” who would rather feign indifference rather than face the terrible implications and repercussions of fact and reality. And we learn that, worst of all, secrets are done not just by action, but by thought. These are things that we are already aware of, of course, but to feel it, relate to it, is a gift that Willis give to us, and for this, we are grateful for her exposition.

Vanishing and Other Stories is what any author could hope for in his/her first book. It is touching, poignant, unafraid to showcase talent and explore subjects that are compellingly difficult, and most of all, adequate enough to hold the readers in her thrall, excited at the next book she will write and publish.