Missing the Target

I just finished Erika Krouse’s short story collection, Come Up and See Me Sometime, and I decided that I don’t like it. While I tend to dislike writing negative reviews, and I feel weird about beating up on a seven-year-old book, I decided to go ahead and write this because I want to like this book, I almost like this book, and I want to think about why it is that I ultimately don’t. Also, I googled the book and found a bunch of positive reviews, so perhaps I am missing something. There will be spoilers, so beware.

The stories in the book are structured around a set of quotes by Mae West. The back of the book says:

With Mae West as her ingenious guiding spirit, Erika Krouse introduces us to thirteen young, single, geographically and emotionally nomadic women looking for self-knowledge and trouble. … These smart, quick-witted women strive for the unflappable sass and strength of Mae West, but often fall prey to their own fear and isolation.

The front of the book says:

Potent, original stuff … Krouse leaves us with a feeling of unbounded, exhilarating possibility. — The New York Times Book Review

I give you this because this is what drew me in. I love Mae West, and I was interested in reading well-written stories about young, single women. I remember moments of unbounded, exhilarating possibility from when I was younger and single myself. I was hooked. I picked up the book at a friend’s house and snuck paragraphs while we were eating dinner. By the end of the evening, I asked if I could borrow it.

That night, I stayed up reading. Every story started out great. Krouse undeniably writes smoothly, with good descriptions of character and a lot of clever detail. For example, from her story “Mercy”:

Every time I came home, Kim followed me as I wantdered among the tables, walked back through the gritty kitchen and started up the stairs to my apartment. “Here, try this,” he’d say and I’d pause with my hand on the banister, opening my mouth. He usually popped something in with a toothpick, or if he had no time for a toothpick, with his sesame oil-stained fingers. Sometimes a fresh dumpling but more often an experiment — shrimp fra diavolo, or a scoop of shepherd pie. A stuffed jalapeno. Escargot.

I said, “The sign says Chinese restaurant, Kim. Why do you serve Chateaubriand?”

“My grandfather’s French. And we sold four today,” he said.

The Chinese restaurant cook who is a living, breathing person, a creative man who experiments with his art, only gets better as the story goes on. The story’s narrator has come to the city after leaving her abusive husband, literally stealing the wallet from his pocket while he beat her. She is a true-to-life combination of tough and clueless. The complexity of the male and female characters here, and the gentle romance that begins to grow between them, had me deeply immersed in the story. But, like so many of the stories in this collection, the ending left me cold. Krouse spends page after page of great writing carefully building up the characters, showing how the woman is learning to be in the world on her own. But, at the end, the woman tells Kim what life with her husband was like. He walks out without explanation (which I found confusing). She waits for him all night, and then also leaves.

I checked out my reaction. Was I merely disappointed that it wasn’t a happy ending? Did I need to be more mature? I ended up deciding that this wasn’t the problem. The comments Michael left on my post “Moment of Attraction” echoed through my mind the whole time I read this book. Michael says he asks, when having others read his work, “When did this author seem deluded instead of the character?” Over and over in Come Up and See Me Sometime, I thought this was happening, and I thought it at the end of “Mercy.”

Krouse’s book is very much about the problems of being single, and I don’t think she has to solve those problems to write a good book. I do think, however, that she has to show some unique perspective on those problems. And I think leaving is too easy, and that is what her characters do most of the time. I think that, in a lot of fiction, characters die or leave at the end simply because the author doesn’t know what else to do. I kept feeling that was happening in this collection, and the effect became claustrophobic.

I like to read short story collections partly because I like to see an author’s range. This book, however, felt limited. “Mercy” was a standout story in terms of characterization, but, aside from that, most of the main female characters seemed like the same woman over and over again. I didn’t feel much variety in subject matter, perspective, or tone. I found myself reading on and on, seduced by good beginnings and middles, yet never feeling satisfied at the end, when I didn’t think I’d been shown anything new. Certainly not anything that left me with a feeling of “unbounded, exhilarating possibility.” Reading the book felt a bit like eating empty calories — you expect it to feel good, and so you continue, waiting for that good feeling to kick in.

It got to the point that, when the last story in the book, “What I Wore,” started out with, “I left Jerry the same day I auditioned for the role of a boysenberry in a yogurt commercial,” I sighed and said to myself, “Of course you left Jerry,” barely even registering the delightfully wacky image of person dressed as a boysenberry.

Lest you think I was actually looking to read chick lit in search of happy endings, I’ll talk a moment about the story in the book that I did like. I would have loved “Mercy” if the ending had been right. But the only story that I thought truly had a good ending was “Too Big to Float.” This is a story about a woman, desperately afraid of flying, who hooks up with a pilot in the course of attending her stepfather’s funeral. There is some kind of real potential there, and the pilot wants to take her to Aruba, but she is just too afraid to get on the plane with him:

Max looked away and said, “I can’t believe this.” His face grew rigid with pride. He said, “You’re afraid of everything!”

“You don’t understand. I don’t think I can do it, Max.”

“Will you do it for me?”

I didn’t say anything. I was thinking.

“Do it for me.” His hands were curled into fists on his hips.

I tentatively moved one foot forward, onto the plane. Well, I did it in my head. I meant to do it. Before I got the chance, Max whispered, “Coward,” with what looked like tears in his eyes. He readjusted his cap and stormed into the cockpit. I stood there for a minute. “Coward?” I asked. The stewardess was still smiling. “Coward?” But it was true.

The narrator goes back to the gate and wonders if he will come off the plane and come to her. Instead, she ends up watching the plane take off. And here’s the ending:

I didn’t cry, I didn’t wave. I just watched the plane through the airport window as it blew up in the sky, bursting into flames and falling to the earth in chunks of twisted metal and flesh.

No, it didn’t.

Instead, it shot away into the sky like a bullet just missing its target, the heart.

I found this ending lovely, though, as I said, not exhilarating. The image of possible love that’s bound up in that last sentence is so interesting. The shooting away into the sky — the possibility — seems to have come about only because the target was missed.

To sum up, I think this story shows that what Krouse is attempting can be done. But I think she needed to stretch more in this collection, push harder to understand her characters’ motivations, and let go of the gimmicky Mae West thing. Every positive review I’ve read talks about Krouse’s sharp, witty style, and the smart female characters. I didn’t particularly detect this, and I think these features were undermined for me by the relentless boredom of the delusions of being single played out over and over again. It would be one thing if I felt the author was truly aware of and reflecting on those delusions. Instead, it seemed like a blind spot.

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3 responses to “Missing the Target

  1. Oddly enough, this makes me want to go and buy the collection just to see if I agree.

    Thanks again, BTW, for the earlier post.

  2. Ha! Funny. I know that I often feel dissatisfied with endings, even in stories published in major literary magazines. I’d be curious to know what others think. Endings were my primary issue with Krouse, though repetition was another issue.

  3. Almost every time I read a short story in The New Yorker it’s by one more DEPRESSED author I would cheerfully strangle in order to help end the misery.
    Come up and see Mae – – MaeWest.blogspot.com

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