Zach VandeZande of American Literary Review wrote this reivew of Portraits:
At the end of last semester, Miro walked into the ALR office and asked me if I had time to review Christine Sneed’s Portraits of a Few of the People I’ve Made Cry, and I said yes, and I read it that weekend and quite enjoyed it, and then, somewhere between revising stories of my own, getting the ALR issue finalized and proofing it, getting my grading done, and then heading off to the tragicomedy that was my Christmas break… well, let’s just say I’m a terrible human being who can’t be trusted.
So when Miro asked me again to review the book this past week, I of course felt like an ass, which is probably not the feeling Sneed would want her book to prompt in someone who liked it a good deal, but here we are. The book itself, which won the Grace Paley Prize and was published last year, is now a finalist for the LA Times First Fiction Award, and for good reason. The ten stories in this volume have a special knack for getting at the personal politics underpinning adult relationships, particularly ones in which there’s some kind of authority gap (dramatic age differences between lovers factor into several of the stories).
The opener, “Quality of Life,” is one of the more harrowing pieces, a sharp thesis statement of a story that hinges on the kind of personal compromise that happens when a powerful man decides that a woman belongs to him. It’s a story that’s squelching and awful in the best way (think Don Delillo when he starts being mean to his characters), and serves as a cautionary tale to set the tone and remind us of the tension inherent in the stories to come, even as they play out without the kind of clear sense of danger that “Quality of Life” has. Here, Sneed demonstrates a knack for revealing her characters without letting us know she’s revealing them—the mysterious Mr. Fulger makes a point of sticking around to see a would-be thief get his due, saying “I’m sure this isn’t his first offense. He knew what he was doing. But obviously so did I.” A statement like this puts a character into sharp focus, and Sneed makes the most of moments like this one.
The writing is pretty keen throughout, but I’d like to single out the beginning paragraph of “Twelve + Twelve” as one of my favorites of my past year of reading, a bitter little firecracker screed that put me right where I needed to be in the story:
Someone in the alley three stories below my window was calling out to someone else and what he was saying was not very nice. Maybe he did it because we were all stuck in an ugly, listless March, ice visible everywhere and clinging to our lawns like a dense gray scum. We were exhausted and cynical under cloudy skies, our pants cuffs perpetually caked in grit and mud, our car tires spinning and spinning on snow-choked streets. No one I knew was outside digging up the flower beds, and certainly no one was in the mood to offer spare coins to strangers distractedly ransacking their pockets for change to feed the meters. Instead, people were talking heatedly into mobile phones or looking down at their feet as they trudged, these unloved husbands and crash-dieters and stubborn musicians and disbarred lawyers who all huddled in on themselves because among their other hardships, winter hadn’t yet ended and at this near-unendurable point, they just couldn’t look each other in the face.
There’s this great, desperate energy when Sneed gets cracking that I like a lot, and it runs throughout “Twelve + Twelve,” which was perhaps my favorite in the collection.
You’re So Different, concerning a famous director returning home to her high school reunion, is another standout. So too is the title story. I hesitate to say that these stories are all about people realizing their own powerlessness, because that would make it seem like Sneed’s characters don’t have agency (and let me tell you, they do), but they are about what we can’t control, what we have to give up, and how other people define us. One of the frequent conversations we have about stories here at UNT is if the kind of stories you find in literary journals are flat, mechanical, or boring. It’s a real danger, but it comes with a real reward, as the best “literary journal” fiction contains a truth you’re not going to find anywhere else, and Sneed’s book proves that point.
If the stories seem to go a little slack in the back half of the book, it’s only because of what’s come before. The arrangement of a short story collection is always a dicey affair (I personally hold to the “crap sandwich” as the best approach, where the good stuff goes on the outsides), and maybe shuffling the deck a little would benefit the book; regardless, the ten stories in Portraits of a Few People I’ve Made Cry reveal a voice that we should be paying attention to.
What I'm saying is that I spend a lot of time as the assistant fiction editor sorting through the slush pile, and yeah, there are gems, but there's also a lot of chaff (and many, many mixed metaphors). The rest of my time is spent plowing through Tolstoy or Carver or whichever other old hat established writer I haven't gotten around to before now. So coming across a book like this, full of solidly-plotted, well-written stories by an up-and-comer with a clarity of vision that seems rarer and rarer in the contemporary short story… well, it's a nice feeling is all, and if I had my way Sneed's book wouldn't find its way back to Miro; instead, it would slide into a place on my shelf between George Saunders and John Steinbeck, not too far away from Lorrie Moore, Mary Gaitskill, and Alice Munro, deserving its place.