Taste test

Some­times bleak­ness is a re­sult not of clev­er­ness but of over­writ­ing.


The char­ac­ters in young Amer­i­can writer Cather­ine Lacey’s first short-story col­lec­tion are trapped in var­i­ous states: limbo, grief, hys­te­ria, ex­ile. The sense of bleak­ness is al­le­vi­ated by the whim­si­cal prose and Lacey’s ten­dency to veer off in un­ex­pect­edly sur­real di­rec­tions. This is Amer­ica as black com­edy, as a very mod­ern state of mind.

In “Fam­ily Physics”, an or­di­nary, well-mean­ing fam­ily try to deal with their out­ra­geously re­bel­lious daugh­ter, Brid­get. As they bat­tle to do the right thing by her, Brid­get re­flects, “It was all a

huge mis­un­der­stand­ing, my be­ing in this fam­ily.”

When Brid­get re­fuses to fol­low the script, chaos erupts. Her sis­ter Linda, whose tone is de­scribed as “proud and put-upon” with “a vin­dic­tive ma­tu­rity,” re­mon­strates: “Are you a les­bian, is that it? Is that what this is all about?”

The dia­logue is hi­lar­i­ous, sharp and darkly acute, as Brid­get lays waste to the ac­cepted nar­ra­tives and ver­bal codes the fam­ily use to sig­nal their co­he­sive­ness.

She is com­pletely law­less, ig­nor­ing all rules of so­cia­bil­ity and good manners, and even­tu­ally dis­ap­pear­ing with­out ex­pla­na­tion. Her un­ruly, un­govern­able be­hav­iour con­trasts with her sis­ters’ con­ven­tional ut­ter­ances and cosy Amer­i­can­isms.

All fam­i­lies de­pend on ver­bal norms to de­fine them­selves. Yet there are two points in the story where Brid­get glimpses some­thing authen­tic be­yond the struc­ture cre­ated by lan­guage. Both in­volve an­i­mals: first, she hits a baby deer with her car, and later, three deer ap­pear at the road­side, cre­at­ing an im­age of beauty that ex­ists out­side words: “It was all too beau­ti­ful and too quiet to be real, not here, not in this world, the coun­try part of this coun­try.”

If an­i­mals rep­re­sent the authen­tic in Lacey’s fic­tion, they’re also a means of ex­plor­ing cru­elty. Var­i­ous crea­tures are sub­jected to vi­o­lence, which be­comes more dis­turb­ing as it re­curs. The tone is al­ways sly, play­ful and comic, but the sub­ject mat­ter be­comes un­pleas­antly grim in places, es­pe­cially in “Be­cause You Have To”, a tale of de­cay and dys­func­tion in which the nar­ra­tor is be­sieged by a mur­der­ous cat and a sick, ram­pag­ing dog.

It’s about here that a sen­si­tive reader may lose sym­pa­thy and pa­tience: “Fri­day I left him tied up in the kitchen all day, put in earplugs, and turned on a fan to drown out his whine. I went to sleep early, but woke up to his paws on my face as he tried to …”

There fol­lows a sex­ual ref­er­ence which is pretty gross but man­ages to be less off­putting than the gen­eral tone of bru­tal­ity and squalor. Some­times in­sis­tence on bleak­ness is not so much clev­er­ness or un­com­pro­mis­ing brav­ery as just over­writ­ing. It will be a sub­jec­tive judg­ment – a mat­ter of taste – the de­gree to which read­ers can tol­er­ate the harsh­ness of these sto­ries. Those who can will en­joy Lacey’s dark hu­mour, sharp dia­logue and witty, eco­nom­i­cal prose.

CER­TAIN AMER­I­CAN STATES, by Cather­ine Lacey (Granta, $29.99)

Cather­ine Lacey: play­ful, comic and grim.

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