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.