• Little Known Facts: A Novel
    Little Known Facts: A Novel
    by Christine Sneed
  • Portraits of a Few of the People I've Made Cry: Stories
    Portraits of a Few of the People I've Made Cry: Stories
    by Christine Sneed
  • Paris, He Said: A Novel
    Paris, He Said: A Novel
    by Christine Sneed
Wednesday
Nov302016

Virginity of Famous Men review, New York Times Book Review 

Sept. 22, 2016 - reviewed by Lauren Christensen 

In “Roger Weber Would Like to Stay,” one of the 13 stories in Christine Sneed’s fourth book, “The Virginity of Famous Men,” a woman named Merilee engages in a complex nocturnal romance with a handsome ghost — until one evening when, annoyed by his intrusions into the rest of her life, she considers breaking it off. “I hate goodbyes, Merilee,” Roger, the irritated ghost, announces before abruptly disappearing. And yet, upon his sudden departure, Merilee “feels oddly bereft.”

The reader experiences a similar sense of bereavement when moving from one of Sneed’s stories to the next, for the author dispenses with the closure of neat endings as intently as ­Roger eschews formal farewells. Snared by each of the collection’s ­tragic, comic, quirky and/or quotidian lives, just as Merilee is by her imaginary relationship, the reader tears through page after page and by the end feels not only bereft but ravenous, hungry for more. While it may be a classic sign of a story well told, that yearning also arises from the sense of irresolution that permeates Sneed’s fiercely meditative and unnerving short fiction.

The individuals she selects to populate her stories are a disparate crew: a middle-aged film-­location scout besotted by a young, fame-hungry Mexican woman; a high school girl befriending a lonely blind man; a government agent involved in unethical diplomatic dealings; a bitter woman whose actor husband has left her for a younger co-star. We encounter these and other characters in vividly drawn scenes that Sneed bluntly cuts short, forcing us to abruptly shift perspective and adapt to the next story’s new discontinuities.

Gradually, though, we come to realize that this apparent irresolution is a deliberate means of offering us as readers the same psychological experiences as Sneed’s characters. Despite their obvious diversity, the members of the book’s patchwork cast are united by their occupation of a common emotional territory: the chasm of uncertainty that divides safety and danger, normalcy and dysfunction, happiness and misery, inaction and action.

In the story titled “Older Sister,” Alex, who has survived a drunken campus rape, is tormented about whether to report her case to the authorities. “Clear Conscience” follows an escalating flirtation between siblings-in-law. The central character in “The Couplehood Jubilee” is a woman who rejects the commercialized and “oppressive” trappings of marriage, leaving her relationship with her longtime boyfriend in the hazy limbo of informal commitment. The emotion linking Sneed’s poignantly relatable characters is a paralyzing sense of equivocation. With razor-sharp yet sympathetic incisiveness, she explores their capacity to question even the most seemingly unshakable convictions in the lives they think they’ve chosen.

The individuals in Sneed’s stories are standing tenuously on tiptoe at the precipice of irrevocable change, not yet having fallen off into scandal, crime, estrangement, insanity. She catches them in moments of relative stillness, moments revealed not in tales of wild adventure but of inward conflict, indecisive contemplation. For instance, in “Beach Vacation” the reader grapples with the suspicion that a woman’s husband is having an affair, a matter that remains agonizingly unresolved at the story’s conclusion.

Sneed never settles many of the questions that arise throughout the collection. Paradoxically, however, this uncertainty only serves to highlight the engaging power of her writing. Our unease indicates that we’ve absorbed the unsettling truth saturating her stories: that placid surfaces often camouflage the rumblings of disquiet, transition, even rebellion, beneath.

Rather than relying on elaborate turns of plot, Sneed’s prose gains blunt force as it hovers in the silent interstices between actions. “Five Rooms,” perhaps the most affecting story, derives its title from the bitingly sarcastic, formidably perceptive ­16-year-old narrator’s reflections on what it must be like for Mr. ­Rasmussen, the blind man she helps at the prompting of her mother, to live in unremitting darkness. “He’s told me that he lives in four rooms now instead of five,” Josie explains, adding, “The fifth room, his sight, is like a forbidden chamber at the top of the stairs that he’ll never be able to go into again.” Josie’s hesitant effort to understand her new companion’s plight, coupled with her wry cynicism — “He went blind nine years ago, when I was 7, but I didn’t meet him until last year, because before then, Mom hadn’t yet had the great idea that I needed to be a compassionate dork” — reveal a character in the flux of maturation, struggling to understand the burdens of adulthood, which are also shadowed by her father’s absence and her mother’s string of bad boyfriends. At the finish of Josie’s story, we feel deprived of comfort and closure. Which is probably just how she feels too.

 

--Lauren Christensen is the associate features editor at Harper’s Bazaar.

Wednesday
Nov302016

Virginity of Famous Men review on Story366 site by Michael Czyzniewjewski

https://story366blog.wordpress.com/2016/11/30/november-29-the-prettiest-girls-by-christine-sneed/

Greetings, Story366! I hope your day is going well. Today is Tuesday, rumored to be the busiest day of the week, and today, I believe it. Karen and I were supposed to go on a date tonight, to see Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, but we looked at each other this morning and both admitted that we had way too much to do today to go off on some date, only two weeks left in the semester, everything stacking upward speeding toward its end. I worked in my office today for four straight hours and must have knocked twenty things off my to-do list, yet I still have twenty more things to do … for tomorrow. I know I just had nine straight days off, but really, I wasted the fuck out of most of those days. Maybe my batteries are recharged—that’s the story I’m going with, anyway. I am a horrible adult.

Speaking of, just a little bit ago, my oldest was telling me about how he wishes he could be an adult, have his “own life.” He’s ten. I assured him every kid has these feelings, but we still had a discussion about the pros and cons of adulthood. Here’s an excerpt (him talking):

“Then there’s the issue of having pizza for dinner. The wife wants hot pizza, but you want cold pizza, leftover from the refrigerator. Do you microwave it to make the wife happy or do you eat it cold the way you want to? The wife wants it hot, but once she sees those soggy crusts, she might be like ‘Oh.'”

We agreed, eventually, that since pizza can be cut up—that it actually comes that way—this might not be the biggest problem he and his future wife will face.

This is funny for a couple of reasons, mostly because it’s me having this discussion with my child, which is preposterous as I’m still just a kid, too, right? It’s also hilarious that this is what he’s worried about, microwaving pizza years from now. Finally, it’s notable that he employs second person, as in the universal you.

But then, when I thought about it, it’s like, Why is he thinking this? Is this what Karen and I do, argue over how to reheat the pizza? Is that what we’ve modeled for him, how he’s formed his expectations of adulthood? Plus, what’s with the use of this term, “the wife?” What started as an unbelievably funny anecdote—we were driving as he was saying this and I almost drove off the road—which I shared on FB, but then it got serious, morphed into me questioning my parenting skills. The boy and I had a talk after I realized all this and I asked him where he heard this term and why he was so worried about day-old pizza. His responses were somewhat reassuring, somewhat mysterious, somewhat time to stop thinking about this and write about today’s story.

Today’s author is Christine Sneed, a writer friend from Chicago who currently teaches at my undergrad alma mater, the University of Illinois. Her latest book is the collection The Virginity of Famous Men, out from Bloomsbury Publishing. Sneed writes longish stories—all twenty to twenty-five pages, about people going through dilemmas, moments of self-doubt, inner conflicts as well as outer ones. I’ve read a couple of stories from this collection before (including the title story, which took me a couple of pages to recognize—there’s been a title change … it’s complicated …), and I’ve always liked her work. One story in particular stood out, “The Prettiest Girls,” so here we go.

“The Prettiest Girls” is about this middle-aged guy (47 … just four years older than me …) named Jim who works as a location scout (amongst other things) in Hollywood. He’s twice divorced, has two kids he never sees who go to expensive East Coast colleges, and he’s decently good at his job. The story starts with him in Mexico, looking for a particular type of church for a dream sequence shot, where he meets a young Mexican woman named Elsa. Elsa is ridiculously beautiful—she reminds Jim of Sophia Loren at her peak—and serves as Jim’s guide. She claims she knows exactly where there’s a church like the one Jim is looking for and what she wants in return is a role as an extra in the film. Jim can say yes—he has the kind of sway to get an extra hired—but he also needs to get his church, so he’s coy with her, strings her along, leading her eventually (as in that first night) to bed. Yet, Elsa got the role. This is the very start of a kind of chess match between Jim and Elsa, lovers who each have something the other wants; Elsa wants to be in movies, to leave Mexico and be in America, while Jim just wants Elsa, this beautiful woman less than half his age.

This comes to that and Jim is paying some border guards to let him take Elsa back with him to LA. When he gets there, he has to first break up with his longtime (and age-appropriate) girlfriend, Lisette, whom everyone in his life was fond of, who despises him for his cowardice. It’s too late, though, as he’s been sleeping with Elsa, she’s already living in his house, and he’s got her there illegally to boot. From there, Jim and Elsa live together, having lots of sex and Jim buying her lots of things to keep her happy. Jim continues working, too, moving from set to set, location to location, leaving Elsa alone for long stretches, gone sometimes fifteen hours a day. This doesn’t make the impatient and restless Elsa very happy, so Jim has to make it up to her with more gifts, more promises, etc.

There’s a lot of this back and forth between the two, who fight a lot, trying to find a balance between manipulating the other and living their lives. For example, even after Jim breaks up with Lisette, Elsa isn’t satisfied and wants him to slice open his finger and swear a blood oath that he’ll never talk to Lisette again—it’s not a pursuit she gives up, either. Elsa also wants to be in movies—duh—but Jim doesn’t really care about all that (even though he has that kind of power). He’s thrilled he gets to walk around Hollywood, around sets, where he knows a lot of people, with Elsa on his arm. It’s a complicated but well drawn relationship that Sneed’s painted here.

And that’s what I really like about this story, how unconventional and messed-up this union proves to be. The sweet, starry-eyed girl of Mexico becomes a demanding mistress almost magically when they cross the border. She understands she is a trophy but is going to milk it, anyway, ride it to the top. Jim understands all of this but because he’s rich, 47, and horny, he’s blind to what’s happening to him, but at the same time, worries constantly that it’ll end, that Elsa will be taken from him, by a director or actor probably, someone with better connections than his. I’ve read a lot of stories this year about relationships, but I can’t think of any about a couple who knows their relationship is temporary but soldiers through it, anyway, just because they each need something from the other. It’s an old dynamic, sure, the young beauty trading her body for something she wants, the older man destroying his dignity so he can feel young again. The setting and the writing and the everything make Sneed’s version so, so good, the characters so fresh, so unknowing and uncaring of just how short a time they have.

Christine Sneed’s The Virginity of Famous Men is a brand-new collection and it’s a good one. I really like how Sneed takes complicated characters with seemingly uncomplicated lives and makes the most of their situations, crafts stories around the little insecurities, the minor decisions that dictate who they are. I’m all-in on this collection, one of the more solid books released this year.

 

Friday
Jun052015

Paris, He Said review in the New York Times by Robin Black

If the American dream is a steady income, a home of one’s own and the promise of a better future for the kids, then the American Fantasy might be summed up in one word: Paris. (Paree!) A Parisian vision of romance, indulgence and beauty has resided in the less responsible quarter of our national psyche since Ben Franklin spent nine years there, wined and dined, wooing and wooed. Franklin, Hemingway, Stein — and Carrie Bradshaw, too. The imagined Parisian life is a heady one, so when the aspiring painter Jayne Marks, the central figure in Christine Sneed’s intricate new novel, “Paris, He Said,” is offered an all-expenses-paid existence in the City of Light by Laurent Moller, a handsome, elegant, older gallery owner who also happens to be her lover, how can she possibly turn him down?

She can’t. She doesn’t. Sneed, author of the story collection “Portraits of a Few of the People I’ve Made Cry” and the novel “Little Known Facts,” uses this irresistible offer as the kickoff for her third book’s events, as Jayne sets out to live the fantasy. There is, however, a condition to the deal. “What you do and what I do outside of the apartment, that is not for the other person to worry over,” Laurent says early on, ushering in what Jayne later describes as a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy toward other lovers.

Part of Paris’s allure has ­always been precisely this licentiousness, this laissez-faire posture toward infidelities. But what happens when the imagined becomes reality to one for whom it is not the norm? That’s certainly one question this novel asks, as Jayne struggles over whether Laurent’s proviso bothers her, liberates her or both at once. But “Paris, He Said” is about more than the ­double-edged sword of open ­relationships.

The book’s true heart lies closer to the potentially even more discomfiting subject of ambition, and it is this focus that elevates “Paris, He Said” — from merely an entertaining novel about a near-universal fantasy to a serious ­exploration of how one manages the hunger for recognition and success, and why one might harbor ambivalence about that aspect of oneself. Jayne, who shows no notable self-consciousness at being financially supported by a powerful man 20 years her senior, balks at the notion that she so much as dreams of showing her work in his gallery (perfectly and perhaps inevitably called Vie Bohème). But why shouldn’t she hope he’d show her work? Why does it seem more shameful for a young woman to fantasize about professional recognition than to accept full financial support, a free and luxurious ride? These questions are not answered in the book, and it’s not clear they can or should be. That they are raised is enough to add a satisfyingly complex and unexpectedly poignant element to Sneed’s narrative.

To be clear, that poignancy ­arises from Jayne’s journey ­toward understanding herself, and also from the section of the book in which Laurent tells his own story of realizing the limits of his painting talents; it does not arise from the central romance. “Paris, He Said” is no more a story about a specific interpersonal relationship, idiosyncratic, intimate and messy, than is any fairy tale. Even as Jayne and Laurent murmur Je t’aime, their arrangement seems more like a didactic hypothetical, concocted for the purpose of exploring thorny issues, than a believable love story.

This may or may not be what Sneed intended, but it is a defining characteristic of the work. “Paris, He Said” is not a book about being in love, even if at first blush it seems to want to be. It is a book about self-discovery, an absorbing, original tale about the ­questions we all end up confronting as we grapple with the ­interplay between who we are and who we think we want to be.

PARIS, HE SAID

By Christine Sneed

324 pp. Bloomsbury. $26.

Wednesday
May202015

The Millions article by Philip Graham

Trouble Using Light: The Complications of Art in the Fiction of Christine Sneed

By  posted at 12:00 pm on May 20, 2015 0

Making art can gnaw at you, wake you up in the middle of the night, and promise you too many paths or none at all. Christine Sneed is a writer who, from the beginning of her career, has been drawn to characters who attempt art, whether it’s painting, acting, screenwriting, or sculpture. What adds a distinctive depth to her work is this added complication: in her stories and novels she reveals the changes that occur from this quest in not only the artist’s life, but in the lives of surrounding friends and family.

coverIn her first story collection, Portraits of a Few of the People I’ve Made Cry(winner of the Grace Paley Prize for Short Fiction), we see Sneed play out the first examples of this obsession. In the title story, the painter and sculptor Antonio Martedi has been dead for over a year, and his granddaughter April still feels the force of his personality and art. Shortly before his death he gave her the present of three sketchbooks of his work, with a warning never to show them to anyone else, saying, “If I wanted someone other than you to have these notebooks, I would have sold them myself a long time ago or donated them to some art school library.”

April, a struggling scriptwriter, becomes involved with a young artist who has already achieved some minor success, but she’s never quite sure if his interest in her isn’t only a reciprocation of her own attraction, but also a disguised desire to “claim some part, no matter how doubtful, of her grandfather’s genius.” He particularly wants to see those private sketchbooks, and even if April suspects that she is being used, she is increasingly prepared to use her grandfather’s art to get what she wants.

coverThroughout this subtle, unsettling story, we see the dead Martedi and his art as described by the memories and interests of others, even through the critical summations of obituaries. Sneed’s first novel, Little Known Facts, in some ways seems like a tree grown from the seed of that short story. The central character, Renn Ivins, a Hollywood actor in his early 50s still enjoying a charmed career (fashioned by Sneed as an amalgam of perhaps Harrison Ford and George Clooney), is seen through the eyes of others in chapter after chapter. Lucy, his first wife, has never remarried; his second wife is writing a tell-all memoir; his son Will walks unprotected beneath the famous cloud of a father who has already won two Academy Awards and is well on his way to a third; Anna, his daughter, is a resident doctor who has begun an affair with a married doctor her father’s age. In each case their lives have been affected by the presence of Ivins’s well-rewarded talent and outsized fame. With every additional success that comes his way, his family members have to struggle against further diminishment.

Yet in the middle of the novel, Ivins himself is allowed to speak, through a secret diary that he keeps, and here the reader is offered the stone that has set so many ripples in motion. We eavesdrop on reflections and revelations not meant for us, and discover that, while Ivins balances a serious artistic work ethic with time he spends on charity work for Katrina victims, he also relies on a spiritual advisor to help him decide what scripts to accept, and that while he is publicly partnered with a celebrated young actress, he is also conducting a secret liaison with his son’s former girlfriend. It’s a complex portrait, and we see how his indulgences, blind spots, and well-crafted excuses for his behavior set in motion much of the toxic aftershocks of fame that are felt by his family. When Ivins, in writing in his diary about tragedy in film, observes that there is “so much poetry in sadness, a very different and possibly more potent variety than the kind of poetry you find in happiness,” he isn’t nearly as aware as he should be of the personal ironies of this insight.

It comes as a relief to see, in the final chapters, his family members beginning to take baby steps away from his emotional influence. His first wife, Lucy, has rediscovered a man who knew her before she became the wife of a famous actor; with increasing confidence Will is writing a screenplay; and Anna is beginning to take a closer look at her affair. But how strong are these steps? At book’s end, Ivins’s affair with his son’s ex-girlfriend is a revelation still waiting to be fully revealed, a foolish risk that may very well unsettle his family once again.

coverSneed’s latest novel, Paris, He Said, her most subtle and accomplished work to date, may seem at first to follow a similar narrative pattern. Jayne Marks is a young artist in New York who struggles through two dead-end jobs to simply pay her rent. Her budding career as a painter is slowly slipping away, until she meets Laurent Moller, the co-owner of the Paris art gallery Vie Bohème that is opening a branch in New York. Though Laurent is decades older than she, they quickly become lovers, and perhaps too quickly he invites Jayne to return with him to Paris and live together in his apartment.

It’s not just about the sex, or their easy way with each other. Laurent claims to see something in Jayne’s work worthy of being nurtured, and he offers her space — and time — in his Paris apartment to create a studio where she can work uninterrupted, without the cares of having to pay any bills. Though other cares take the place of concerns about money. Perhaps Jayne is merely a modern version of a kept woman, indulged in by her lover. Or he genuinely admires her work, but there is an unspoken contract in place, sexual comfort for the possible opportunity of a showing at Laurent’s Paris gallery.

The first third of Paris, He Said, is told from Jayne’s perspective, with all her undermining worries on display, mixed with her attraction to Laurent, her rediscovered ambitions as an artist, her love of Paris. Like Little Known Facts and the revelation of Ivins’s perspective in a central chapter, the middle section of Paris, He Said is devoted to Laurent’s attempt at a memoir. When I looked ahead at the novel’s table of contents, I have to confess to an increasing anticipation that Laurent’s section would reveal the truth of some of Jayne’s worries, or worse.

But Laurent turns out to be more complex than any bad guy disclosures might offer. A failed artist himself, he turned to displaying others’ art in a gallery he established with an inheritance from his family’s vineyards. With his gift for discerning artists whose talent is also salable, his gallery becomes a success, and Laurent takes it upon himself to become an informal patron of selected artists whose work he believes to be promising. Sometimes his hunches work out, sometimes not. Sometimes he mixes sexual attraction with his patronage, and he believes enough in his motives for supporting art not to be too concerned about this potentially compromising complication.

Jayne is his latest hunch. With the time to think out her art’s possibilities and apply those insights to canvas, her art flourishes and Laurent offers her a place in a group showing at the gallery. All might seem to be well, but in the third section of the novel the internal contradictions of her relations with Laurent can’t be sustained indefinitely. With a Gallic insouciance he continues — not secretly enough — meetings with a number of his former lovers (some of whom are also artists he supported). Jayne, eventually able to interpret his absences, finds herself drawn back to the still-devoted boyfriend she left for Laurent. The power of art alone can’t keep them together, and the way Sneed recounts the initial steps of Jayne and Laurent’s eventual estrangement is quietly devastating.

“Before you make up your mind about me, slashing an X through the box of my murky character, you should know there is more to the story,” Laurent writes in his memoir, but this sentence could apply to every character in Paris, He Said. Because Sneed never descends to an easy headline of revelation, or a plot twist that offers a finality of judgment, Paris, He Said is a brave book. Sneed offers, with quiet confidence, her characters’ increasing complexities. People, like the best art, deserve more than one interpretation. There is little black and white contrast in Sneed’s work, and she lingers in every gradation of shade in between, as if gray were a full palette of color. Lurking in the areas where easy judgments can’t survive, she builds up and undermines a character at the same time, creating an attractive surface with her prose that also fills us with disquiet.

Few fireworks here, instead a slow, unsettling burn.

Tuesday
May122015

BookPage Review of Paris, He Said

May 2015 issue, reviewed by Kelly Blewett

There is something irresistible about a talented American woman in Paris. She feels sexy and alive while strolling the city’s streets, confident the world will unfurl in her hand like a blossoming flower. 

Such young women are featured in new books by Kate Betts and Christine Sneed, and both tell wonderful stories—one true, one fictional—about taking risks and pursuing dreams abroad.

Betts’ memoir, My Paris Dream, recalls her years in the city of light after graduating from Princeton in the 1980s. Her Paris was a ladder whose climb began with freelance writing assignments for travel magazines and culminated with a position as a fashion editor and associate bureau chief of Women’s Wear Daily. Betts, who later became the editor of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, is an instantly likable storyteller. She takes you to the Parisian boulevards and describes in terrific detail what people were wearing. Perhaps occasionally too much detail. “Only the French could invent seamless stockings that stay up with a rubber sticky band that grips the upper thigh,” she writes. As a young woman looking to make a good impression, she bought several pairs. “Fashion is tribal,” she explains. “It’s not about who you are but where you belong.” This is a story of how one American woman came to belong in the fashion capital of Europe, and how she wrote about that world for an American audience. Along the way, Betts made some terrific friends, fell in love and witnessed the world of style up close during a time of major transition. Full of slangy French, delectable food and swoon-worthy fashion, Betts’ memoir is well worth the read.

If Betts’ Paris is a ladder, then Sneed’s is an escape hatch. Jayne Marks, the protagonist of Sneed’s novel, ParisHe Said, is an aspiring artist in New York who can’t find time to paint. Then she meets gallery owner Laurent Moller. Decades older and maybe a little too suave, Laurent sweeps Jayne away to Paris to be his girlfriend and to live in his luxurious apartment. In her new life, Jayne has hours each day to paint, cook and work in Laurent’s French gallery, which is located on the same street as the Louvre. “I am closer to my twenty-year-old self here,” she thinks, “closer than I am at home.” Yet she finds it hard to settle into such a decadent existence. Can she maneuver the complexities of Laurent’s social world? Will her paintings ultimately be any good? Is Laurent being totally faithful to her? And why can’t she stop thinking about her ex-boyfriend in New York? Sneed, whose previous novel, Little Known Facts, drew considerable acclaim, expertly keeps the pages turning in this delightful novel. Paris, He Said offers readers, too, an entertaining escape from the mundanities of daily life. With clever and graceful prose, Sneed deftly guides a story that explores whether satisfaction follows when all one’s deepest wishes come true.