Monday, June 3, 2013

This Close: Stories by Jessica Francis Kane

This Close: Stories
by Jessica Francis Kane

Not many short story collections are entirely wonderful. One or two stories, while not necessarily un-enjoyable, usually feel like filler. And yet, Jessica Francis Kane's new collection, This Close, is quite near perfect. It left me wishing for one more story, which likely means that the length of the book is exactly right. Twelve stories, some related and some standalone, navigate the yearning for connection and the complex interior lives that we all have. 

From the start, we have characters wrapped up in affection mixed with misunderstanding and obligation. In “Lucky Boy,” Henry develops an odd relationship with his dry cleaners, two Korean woman who may or may not be sisters, who end up foisting upon him the boy who sits there with them. He takes the boy to the park where they play catch for a little while before he returns him to the dry cleaners.

“You don't have to do this,” he said as we headed out of the park.
“Do you want to?” I asked.
He shrugged. “Do you want to?”
I shrugged. We were a pair.
“Do you like baseball?” I said after a minute.
“They want me to have more friends.”

In the next story, “American Lawn,” Pat feels a compulsion to compete with her neighbor Janeen, especially when it comes to the attention of a local gardener, Kirill. Kirill is using part of Pat's lawn for a vegetable patch, but it is his own plot — Pat is just letting him use the space, so he is not “her” gardener. And yet … 

One story, “Lesson” is just a few paragraphs long, and we don't know of its greater significance until later in the book. 

“Evidence of Old Repairs” is a lovely story about a woman's relationship with her teenage daughter, and the vacation they take to London, but it's also about so much more. Kane shifts the narrative back and forth through time in an affecting way, managing to fit a lot of history into twenty pages. Her way of setting the scene is also excellent:

The morning of their last full day was still and white. A low mist the color of the sky skirted the trees in the park. It was warmer than it had been all week and smells from blocks away — fish, burning coffee, diesel fumes — hung in the air pockets. The surface of the water was glassy, the wake of a single coot rippling in long lines undisturbed. Walking past the Italian fountains, which were not yet running, Sarah felt that sounds, too, were attenuated. Somewhere in the distance she heard the noise of construction, and she walked carefully, listening to her shoes on the path.

Even when her characters are distressed, when the stories are told in the third person, there's still a serene quality to the writing. We are looking in, and though their troubles are understandable, it's different than being immersed in what they are feeling. This is not a bad thing; it's just a different way of experiencing a story.

However, when the character becomes “I,” the effect can be devastating. Without spoiling anything, “Next in Line” certainly achieves an emotional wallop, and I felt the anxiety acutely in “The Essentials of Acceleration.”

To make a comparison, the third person stories were like watching a good movie, where the entire time I was conscious of its eventual end. That's not to say any of the stories were predictable — remember, I said a good movie — but that my investment was more of the “outside looking in” variety.

The first person stories were more akin to a good television show, where I felt more “in it” and attuned to the characters' feelings. Because we're in their heads, we only know what they know, and it's easier to forget that it will end somehow.

I must admit that I read this book several months ago, and it is only because I've been slow about everything in general lately that I've not talked about This Close until now. Though it was released at the beginning of March, I told myself that being slow worked out because May was Short Story Month, after all, and wouldn't it be more thematic to have the review up then? Well, it's now June, and here I am, but no matter — This Close is an excellent book no matter when you read it. Even if you're not normally a short story collection reader — which, what's up with that? — this book is worth your attention.

Full Disclosure: Graywolf Press provided me with an uncorrected proof for review, so my excerpts may differ slightly from the finished edition. I thank them for the gesture, and I will continue to be fair with my reviews.

#15

This review is part of Cannonball Read V, in which participants attempt to read and review 52, 26, or 13 books in a year. A charitable donation is made for those who complete 52 reviews by December 31, 2013.

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