Story Prize Finalist (2010) — Death Is Not an Option

There are all sorts of reasons to love The Story Prize. It promotes the art of the short story collection; director Larry Dark always puts together a first-class team of judges and does his legwork; and it’s completely possible to read all of the finalists between the time the shortlist is announced and the award ceremony itself. Three is a nice, doable number. So this year, Like Fire decided to put up or shut up, and we’re taking an in-depth look at each of the contestants. On February 11, Daniel Nocivelli reviewed Anthony Doerr’s Memory Wall, on the 18th Lisa Peet looked at Yiyun Li’s Gold Boy, Emerald Girl, and today, just to shake things up a bit, the two of us are having a conversation about Suzanne Rivecca’s collection, Death Is Not an Option.

DN: I thought the first one, the title story, was the best of the entire lot: Students at a Catholic high school are dragooned into attending their senior class retreat. Their conversations along the way are spot-on in the merciless skewering of even the tiniest mote of pretense or sanctimony they detect among their teachers, parents, religion, and especially themselves. Their sense of order and justice is piercingly acute:

Claire is the only one who knows about my Eddie Vedder [crush] because, although she is a psychotic bitch, a hokey part of me is reserved for her, a part I can get out of my system and feel better. Claire is kind of like an enema.

And Emma is talking about a friend! Their immaturity is as hilarious as it is discomfiting (I say that, of course, from the distance of three+ decades). The antic discourse, however, hides very real and tender feelings—the masquerade dance characteristic of adolescence.

LP: There’s so much teenaged push and pull here it almost makes you want to burst into tears yourself, which I think makes it an unqualified success.

DN: Even if high school wasn’t a wildly affirming experience for you (as it largely wasn’t for me), leaving it behind is still a significant milestone, a symbol of larger transformations already underway and those not yet imagined, those still to come. It’s for just such a time in life that the word bittersweet is needed:

Tomorrow night this fucking retreat will be over. In a month and a half I will graduate. In four months I will go to college. I used to comfort myself with that thought, like a nest egg. But now I feel the crying jag starting. I have been here too long; I have grown conditioned; I only know how to interact with human beings who are in direct and antagonistic opposition to me.

Emma’s sense of futility on leaving high school and her known world, and her unnamed fear of starting college hundreds of miles away from home, is precious, in the best sense of that word—the already and the not-yet battling each other across the indefatigable spirit of a teen. Suzanne Rivecca got this one exactly right.

LP: I agree, it’s lovely, and it sets the tone well. The stories in this collection strike me as a set of loose variations on a theme: the desire to be believed, the urge to disclose vs. the wish not to have to disclose, but be understood anyway.

DN: Sounds like my life!

LP: I think it’s everyone’s, to a certain extent. Which in a way works against the stories as a group because it’s so clear when something succeeds or doesn’t. On the other hand, I liked the book a lot for trying, because it’s dealing with such delicate, yet totally relatable, emotion. That temptation to write a long, detailed answer to a question like “How’s your mom doing?” or “What’s up with your job” is so hard to resist when it hits, and you suddenly feel this overwhelming compulsion to connect. I’ve done it. That’s most likely why I blog.

DN: That’s a very interesting insight. I hadn’t thought of that. I don’t really think much about why I blog; I just do it. I should spend some time considering that. I think I’m sometimes in too much of my own bubble while I’m reading and preparing a post—the activity seems to be enough. It’s important to pay more attention to the blogging motivation. It’s OK, certainly, to connect, but a good idea not to lose sight of that need (note to self, and all that).

LP: But I think the activity being enough isn’t a bad thing. It keeps all of this enjoyable, hopefully. That’s something she’s good at picking out, where the desire to make yourself heard leaves off and where the need—the neediness—kicks in. And where it comes from in the first place.

DN: She isn’t shy about taking on very difficult topics, all of them centering around confused desires and an individual’s vulnerability (from Latin vulnus, wound). I was a little taken aback when some of the other stories in the book offered an unblinking glimpse at domestic abuse and silence, domestic abuse and strident intervention, obsession, stalking, the needs of helpline callers and the needs of helpline staff, and even something as innocuous as the hookups of the lonely.

LP: Yes, and while the second story, “Yours Will Do Nicely,” wasn’t one of my favorites stylistically, when the heroine answers her one-night stand’s breezy sweet note with an embarrassingly revealing—and yet totally heartfelt—letter, I winced with recognition:

When you told me about putting the radio collar on the female wolf, I envied you. I want to find a beautiful wild thing and track it, be able to tell if it’s still alive from hundreds of miles away, be able to know I had once touched a killer while she was unconscious, briefly and vulnerably harmless for the first time in her life. I keep thinking of the wolf waking up in the snow hours later like a creature coming out of a spell, feeling that something about her was different, but not knowing why, shaking the snow off her fur and running back into the trees, irreversibly changed, connected to someone now.

It’s the letter you should never write to the first person you sleep with in two years, and the kind of letter that—in one form or another—we all do. Rivecca really does get the permutations of connection. Her success on where she goes with it varies, though.

DN: Agreed! She is apparently fearless about pushing boundaries and wandering about in fields of gray, but none of the stories match up, I think, to the straightforward clarity of the first one, the book’s title story. A lot of details—too many details, really—weigh down the other stories and end up obscuring our look at the complex issues on display. Lists (and lists and lists) of things running throughout the latter stories drew my attention away from the main action already in progress. I was so focused on not being able to connect with her stories that, to my embarrassment, I’ve completely overlooked the reality that they are about connection itself.

LP: I thought “Look Ma, I’m Breathing,” which I first read two and a half years ago in Best New American Voices 2009, was a very well-put together piece. The two entwined story lines—of Isabel Hyde’s great deception at age nine, when she claimed the Virgin Mary appeared to her and which later provided her with the fodder for a memoir—and a stalker of a potential landlord who sees a connection where there is none—feed each other well. Together they produce a certain logic all their own. When the woman who tells too much and the man who presumes too much meet at the restraining order hearing, there’s a genuinely fluid interplay going on between them:

Most of all she thought of herself as she started to speak, before he had brought out [her] book and shamed her. How she opened her mouth and things came out, elegant and lucid things, and she was like the nightingale in the fairy tale placed in front of the king, watching respect and recognition dawn on the judge’s face—this doll-like girl, she speaks so well!—watching the stenographer look up at her for an instant and grimace sympathetically, that subtle empathy women convey like a shoulder squeeze, and, surrounded by the blank walls of her new apartment, she held the scotch in one hand and knew it was useless, knew that nothing would ever come out of her more purely or clearly than things like this: these distilled episodes, these illuminated lamentations, sculpted in all the right places, these testimonies of harm.

DN: It’s good that these difficult issues are brought up and worked over, made available for reflection and discussion. I think this kind of openness, a more transparent approach in looking at life, is informative and useful. I wish, this time, it had been more direct and not quite so cluttered.

LP: I agree, and I think transformative is a good word (not to mention transubstantiation, which figures prominently in “Very Special Victims”). She takes on some edgy territory and I think she’s skillful with the difficult stuff. It’s weaving that into a well-formed story that can be hit or miss here. In “Consummation,” for instance, she takes on a terrific topic: the persistent but hard-to-quantify emotional abuse that a tyrannical, frustrated father can visit on his family. There’s a lot that can be done with that, but somehow I never quite bought it—the narrator’s father never totally sprang to life. But in a way the story’s inclusion made more sense after reading the next one, “None of the Above.” Again, the subtext there has real teeth. Alongside the dilemma of Alma, a grade-school teacher who suspects that one of her students is being hurt at home, flows a quieter, deeper deadlock—the way histories of abuse become currency. And though the reasons behind her reluctance to call social services are complicated and valid, her boyfriend eternally has the moral upper hand on the subject:

Kurt turned away from her and looked into the sink. His hair stuck up at crazy angles and she wanted nothing more than to smooth it down and hug his body to her like a giant hot water bottle, but she was afraid he would rebuff her. Their arguments always brought her to the same dead end. The dark places in Alma’s own background were insufficient to trump the fact that she had not been beaten. It was like an endless, rigged game of Rock Paper Scissors. Beating crushed everything.”

DN: What struck me this time around, on a reread, were the signals that Rivecca sent out. For me, as I mentioned, I was dazed by her style and all the details by the time I reached this last story. But, now, I see that she told us right away that something else was up—for one thing, Peter’s wound was a “puncture wound,” not the routine stuff of abuse. Had she said, “bruise” or “cigarette burn,” we and the story would have been in a whole different place. Interesting. Also, there are more than enough signals that Alma tends to be rather high-strung. However caring and noble her instincts were, her approach was far more ungrounded and impulsive that I would have liked to see from a third-grade teacher.

So, the first time around, I saw the tiger as yet another detail, somewhat far-fetched, but hey, it’s a big country out there and who knows what goes on behind closed doors? It’s altogether likely that at least one situation like this is playing itself out somewhere in the US right now. Perhaps there is always something like this going on in a household somewhere—like I Love Lucy reruns, still broadcast nearly sixty years later. How would we ever know if it doesn’t hit even the local media?

On the second read, when I was paying attention to the tiger, I thought, “Oh yes; good for you.” I appreciated the subtleties in the story that I hadn’t really seen before. Having it end the way it did was just the right touch—and doesn’t devalue at all the issues of abuse and just general family functioning that are woven throughout. Nicely done.

LP: I almost loved this one. Maybe I did… I’m still thinking about the end, whether it was ingenious or somehow anticlimactic. And if so, how exactly was she supposed to resolve it? Still, it took the story’s trope and tossed it on its head, and I like that. She certainly isn’t being glib there.

DN: I think your way of reading both stories together enables them to stand together and make much more sense than as separate pieces.

LP: That’s always the question with a series of short stories that aren’t obviously linked—to what extent are they expected to stand alone or reinforce each other? I’m not sure what Suzanne Rivecca would say about these.

I do know this: Although Death Is Not an Option may be uneven, it’s extremely thought-provoking. I’m still mulling over several of the stories days later, and the ways in which she brings her art to a number of hot-button topics and makes them reverberate in a fresh way. Of all three Story Prize finalists, I’m glad we chose this book to have a public conversation about, Daniel.

I’ll be covering the Award event on Wednesday, March 2, and—especially after spending so much time with the entries—I’m very much looking forward to it.

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