Wendy Brenner, who will be reading Oct. 5 at the Regulator Bookshop in Durham and Oct. 26 at the Bull's Head in Chapel Hill, will have out her second collection of short stories this fall. Titled Phone Calls from the Dead, the collection is a sometimes puzzling work that concentrates greatly on early childhood. The story ³Nipple," for instance, is told from the perspective of a girl who might be 13. Littered with the word ³like" at least twice a sentence, it tells a bizarre tale about a nipple that has fallen from the chest of an uncle of one of the narrator's friends. Like many of Brenner's stories, ³Nipple" is suffused with a piquancy that illustrates the tension between the characters' sheltered childhoods and the real horrors of adolescence.
One of Brenner's most impressive characteristics is her facility with different voices, from the casual tones of ³Nipple" and ³Four Squirrels" (about four squirrels tied together at their tails) to the somberness of ³Mr. Meek" or ³Are We Almost There." ³The Human Side of Instrumental Transcommunication" is told as a presentation, to an undefined panel of experts, given by the father of a deceased boy who had been obsessed with tape recorders. While on the surface it is a story about a father's belief that his son is communicating to him from the beyond, it turns out to be about the breakup of his marriage, after the boy's death, due to what his wife sees as his unsentimental scientific interest in the death.
While the dictions and dispositions of the narrators in Phone Calls vary greatly, Brenner's authorial voice integrates the stories with its unapologetic refusal to clear things up for her reader. But Brenner is not abusing her readers with her reticence as much as expecting them to keep up. Ultimately, this is what sets Brenner apart from so many of her young colleagues. While her stories sometimes lack lasting resonance, this collection should be enough to tide us over until Brenner delivers what will surely be a must-read novel.
Aimee Bender, who will be reading Sept. 14 at the Regulator Bookshop, will be touring this fall to support the paperback release of her first novel, An Invisible Sign of My Own. It is her second book, after the short story collection, The Girl in the Flammable Skirt. Her first book contained many stories that existed in a world where the chains of realism had been confidently tossed off. Invisible Sign, however, is a slower-paced story that alternates between the childhood and young adulthood of the protagonist, Mona Grey, who has made a life of being a quitter.
Structured around birthdays and quittings, the novel is best when focused on Mona at 19 and 20, when she gets kicked out of her home and falls into a gig teaching elementary-school math. While the story seems to be about Mona's inability to get her life started, Bender doesn't let her character fall into the hip young slacker mold. Mona is not self-obsessed or lazy as much as she is a nonconformist. Bender deftly sets this up in the first chapter, as Mona gives an obligatory outline of a short-lived relationship with a boyfriend whom she sees once or twice a week, and whom she refuses to have sex with even when she wants to. Most tellingly, Mona neglects to offer anything in the way of a name for the boyfriend, or an outline of their breakup.
Invisible Sign's tone is lovely in its gloominess. Early in the novel, Mona inexplicably devours half a bar of soap, comparing it to chocolate, and Bender is convincing in her assertion that Mona does not even taste the bar. After eating the soap, Mona sleeps, and the next day takes another bite in the shower, then repeatedly vomits foam. The clean puke provides the juxtaposition that drives much of the novel: Mona has the ability to arrange a life of clean orderliness, but a life that also has a pall cast over it by what may be a rather empty existence.
Try as she might, Mona has trouble relishing even the antics and energy of her first and second grade students. Fortunately, Bender never tells us this. The classroom vignettes are moving because, like children, they rapidly alternate between cutesy exhiliration or inanity, and darker visions of the kids' cutthroat competition for attention. An Invisible Sign of My Own is not as interested in presenting Mona's advancement through young adulthood as it is in challenging the reader to sort through Mona's psychology. Bender clearly wants us to want what's best for Mona, but is reluctant to tell us what that is.
The most outwardly funny and quirky writer of the three is Arthur Bradford, who will be reading Sept. 25 at the Regulator Bookshop. His debut collection of short stories, Dogwalker, has just been published by Knopf. In the past few years, Bradford has contributed to Esquire and McSweeney's, but the force of his prose can best be appreciated when his stories are read back to back and seen as one body of work.
Dogwalker is sure to be one of the best books of the year. While the stories share no thematic thread, they could be happening to the same person, around the same time in his life (early 20s), and could be seen as chapters in an unconventional novel. Like Bender and Brenner, Bradford works in the first person without giving the impression that the narrator is simply a surrogate for a self-important young adult. Bradford's simple prose and studied aloofness recall Denis Johnson's Jesus' Son, another book of short stories that function best when seen as one work. Also like Jesus' Son, Bradford creates narrators to whom things happen, but who are not acting much on the world themselves. They are charming young men who do not do a hell of a lot, observing a world in which not a hell of a lot happens.
But when things do happen, they are usually strange. Most critics and blurb writers take note primarily of the oddities in Bradford's stories. He writes about 20-pound slugs, a family of people with cat-like faces, and neighbors who bring over dead puppies in plastic bags. But Bradford pulls off these stories without advertising their strangeness.
In the same way that Bender's Mona Grey is a quitter who is not a slacker, Bradford's narrators are slackers who aren't losers. Their observations are acute, and they do not seem to be lackadaisical do-nothings, but slightly ³abnormal" young people with nothing to prove. A typical interaction between Bradford characters is one wherein the dialogue is simple, but--like real speech--it is most resonant when it is sparse. In ³Mollusks," for instance, the narrator has a crush on his friend's wife, and offers to give her a silver cup that he has found as a gift:
I held out the cup I had found and Teresa stopped working. She had this way of raising just one eyebrow. It was a very sexy thing to do. She said, ³Are you sure you want to give that to me?" I wasn't making much money then. I worked three nights a week at the Texas School for the Blind chasing after the children and putting them to bed after supper. It didn't pay very well. Teresa was right: I needed everything I got, even that little cup. So I said to her, ³Oh, maybe I should hold on to it," and she nodded knowingly. What a vixen.
This coveting of a friend's wife is common of the stories in Dogwalker, which may be one of the most casually amoral books of the past decade. Bradford doesn't hesitate to play this amorality for laughs, but the frankness of the moral absence in his stories is counterintuitively refreshing. In "South for the Winter," the narrator steals his blind friend Eric's car. When he is pulled over, he tells the police officer that he is Eric, the owner of the car, and that he does not have his driver's license with him. The officer checks out his story and finds out differently:
"Are you blind?" asked the cop.
"No," I admitted. "I'm not."
So the cop radioed the station and had them call Eric's house. Eric was upset, which was understandable. He informed the authorities that I had stolen his vehicle.
"You stole from a blind man?" asked the cop.
"I borrowed it without permission," I said.
Bradford is as deft as Denis Johnson and every bit as funny as David Sedaris, but utterly original in the way he has created a world that exists one notch lateral of reality, but which contains all of its somberness and all of its hilarity.