By Justin Taylor
Harper Perennial, 2010
Tetris is not a game you can win. It just gets harder and harder until you lose. It is “designed to end, not to be beaten; I doubt they even programmed a graphic for the YOU WIN screen.” This existential nugget is given us by the narrator of “Tetris,” a talented story in Justin Taylor’s consistently talented collection, Everything Here Is the Best Thing Ever. In the story, a young man plays Tetris while the world ends. His girlfriend lies on the floor nearby, curled into the fetal position and clutching a Bible she is trying to make sense of. The image is a little too on the nose. In fact, all of the stories in this collection are palpably familiar, as if Taylor had purchased a short story kit – complete with disaffected teens, fading love, dysfunctional families, and oddly eloquent losers – to assemble at home.
That would seem to be a fatal strike against Taylor’s debut, but Everything Here is the Best Thing Ever remains very readable despite the seeming limitations of its forms and themes. These short stories may resemble and derive from the work of a long line of American short story practitioners, but they retain a freshness of execution and a depth of feeling that keep you engaged throughout. The stories are dense and efficient, no words wasted, without feeling stripped bare. The characters spring to life with just the faintest touches. The settings and conflicts are perfectly constructed, but rarely feel contrived. It’s an extremely successful book, and makes me immediately interested in knowing what else Taylor will have to say.
What he’s saying so far is summed up well by that doomed Tetris game. A sense of fatalism runs heavily through all the stories. The characters don’t expect much from life except for it to continue being hard. They are not idealists, dreamers, or problem solvers. Most of them are lazy, or just laid-back enough to watch their decisions being made for them. A lot of them feel persistently guilty – for being bad friends, bad Jews, bad boyfriends – but not enough to do more than notice their guilt and comment upon it. If there are better, more productive versions of themselves to strive towards, they don’t seem interested.
They live apart from the ideals, such as religion or love, that might make them try to become better. The romantic relationships in the stories are routinely uninspiring. I was struck by how often Taylor described a relationship both during and after it had taken place. For instance, “What Was Once All Yours” describes a high school couple, slightly mismatched, who are drawn closer together by an unexpected pregnancy. Watching their relationship deepen is quietly moving, but Taylor then goes on to describe their breakup and the narrator’s admission that “years later” he would think of his ex-girlfriend infrequently, and didn’t miss her. Their meaningful time together, we’re supposed to notice, was not wholly redemptive. They were not made new and complete by each other. They went back to being uninspired.
Religion, which shows up more than a few times, is similarly ineffective to these characters. Taylor’s narrators often have a brush with a religious person or idea, roll their eyes, and then continue with their day. In “The Jealousy of Angels,” literal angels from heaven steal the narrator’s girlfriend because they are jealous that God loves man more than them. The narrator has the option to “fill out a complaint form,” but doesn’t, and spends the rest of the afternoon watching the news and drinking beer with Satan, who has showed up to join him. “’That’s always how it is,’ Satan said. ‘They keep your days filled with the piddling shit so you don’t have the time or the heart to go after the big stuff.’”
And for the most part, no, the characters in Everything Here don’t go after the big stuff. But the absence of idealism, epiphany, or religion does not sink them into despair. They are all quite accustomed, if not comfortable, with the lack of certainty in their lives, as if they never expected anything else. Their personal failures are related with complacency, their trespasses seem inevitable. Their relationships always seem to be – and are described as – a matter of chance or convenience, or sometimes both.
Brad and Kenny had been best friends when they were kids, but Kenny was overweight and got picked on, so Brad abandoned him. Fast forward to high school and, inevitably, Kenny is good-looking and popular; and as inevitably, Brad describes the scene as though it were from a movie he was watching:
I saw him on the first day of ninth grade – high school, the real big time – down the hall from me, in motion. He was taller, and not so zitty as he’d been. He was lean now, hair the color of wheat and shaggy about his ears. We saw each other, thirty feet of emptying hall between us. The bell was ringing – a digital bell that sounded like some bag of microwave popcorn was ready. The linoleum floors were freshly buffed for the new school year and the light flung down by the fluorescent tubes screamed back up at the ceiling. It was like being trapped between two horrible moons. He nodded at me – one acknowledging chin raise, that was all it was – and I gave him the same back. We were zeroed out, I understood this, strangers about to meet for the first time, though we didn’t. Not then. We had classes to get to and were both late.
Many of the stories in Everything Here are written with this same first-person tone, as if the characters are constantly aware of how they are coming across to you. A few times the narrator adds “you know?” at the end of a description, and once, “You know what I mean when I say that.” Taylor uses a kind of social shorthand to make the reader feel comfortable within the stories. All the bars feel like places you’ve been before, and all the characters feel like people you went to high school with, perhaps because a large number of the stories take place in high school.
Like a lot of high school students, then, Taylor’s characters are slightly overdefined by persona. Goth, hippie, grunge, anarchist, freak folk, and hipster are all terms used to introduce new characters without much elaboration. Taylor lets the classifications stand, knowing that most readers – especially readers that are roughly of his generation – will recognize these types. You don’t feel that this is authorial laziness, though. He treats his characters much like they treat themselves, people who are so accustomed to appraising themselves and others as a sum of their public habits and tastes that reading stories about them feels a lot like being their friend on Facebook.
But that’s not to say that learning about them as social personas doesn’t make for good reading. Taylor has a gift for the telling detail: “Aunt Lisa had long blond hair, split at the ends and graying at the roots.” “She had a decent singing voice but didn’t use it.” “He’s wearing dark skinny-fit jeans and a brown tee shirt with a stencil of a broken machine gun on it and the all-caps directive to MAKE LEVEES NOT WAR.” “He holds the door for a bottle blond in end-of-season-sale designer wear.” I suspect that Taylor is holding himself back when it comes to his flair for these pithy one-liners, lest the stories become oppressively clever, all-mot-juste-all-the-time affairs. In moderation, though, they help to reinforce the detached nature of Taylor’s characters, where all the details of their public image are pushed to the surface, and all their true feelings, if they can admit to anything so embarrassingly unironic, are harder to discern. So we learn a lot about what kind of clothes they wear and what kind of music they listen to. When one of them is genuinely moved by something, it’s as refreshing and rare to us as it is to them.
The kid playing Tetris describes it as “a sort of ecstasy of self-and-game where we are as close to becoming one being as we ever will and this lasts some amount of time and then ends.” This sense of oneness, where the characters slip out of detachment and into, not idealism but a fuller, more engaged sense of life, is scarce. It doesn’t even happen in every story. A character in “Go Down Swinging” narrowly loses a chance to have just such a genuine experience, and regrets that he missed something “totally nontheoretical. The Real.” His girlfriend has to remind him that they do actually “live in the real.” “You poor theorist,” she says.
In “Tennessee” the Real comes unexpectedly. The main character spends most of the story trying to bond with his younger brother, which he never does, but ends up connecting with (well, sleeping with) his brother’s best friend. In “What Was Once All Yours,” the narrator describes his friend’s uncle Judge, “the kind of man who’d swerve toward an animal in the road,” and then goes on to say,
Judge has nothing to do with this story…. Judge is simply a character on whom I can’t help but dwell some. Something pulls my thoughts back his way. He inspires a loathing so pure, to be silent about it seems no less a crime than denying love.
It’s this purity of emotion that is so rare, and that exerts an unexpected force on the stories. Taylor’s characters are used to assuming that powerful emotion is contrived or naïve, so that they have to remind themselves, and marvel, that they are capable of it. None do this more effusively than the narrator of “Weekend Away,” who says,
Real life. What a funny concept. When I think about it – This is it! Happening! Now! Andnowandnowandnow! – there’s nothing than can keep me from bursting out laughing.
Taylor’s characters muddle through their small, rather lackadaisical lives until that Tetris game eventually beats them. But until then they sometimes win small battles. They sometimes experience perfectly true moments. And those moments shimmer through the haze. As one character says, “The world is not brimming over with grace, but it does have some.”
Clearly Taylor would dominate any creative writing workshop. His collection can be read like a handbook for the successful short story. Take a central character or two, make them slightly off-center but still relatable. Demonstrate their off-centeredness with a few skillfully chosen details, being careful to sprinkle these throughout instead of frontloading them, or you’ll look like you’re trying too hard. Give these characters a conflict which is equal parts momentous and private. Don’t make them heroes. It’s an unbelievably familiar genre.
But Taylor’s remarkable literary talent is obvious even when writing precise, formulaic stories—grace notes of true feeling are constantly shooting up through stories’ artificial constraints. He’s shown us that he knows all the rules. Now I look forward to when he starts breaking them.
Janet Potter has worked in bookstores in Boston, Dublin, Greece, and Chicago. If you ever meet her, she will try to make you read Cloud Atlas.