All This Useless Beauty
The most beautiful and perhaps telling moment in Long Beach writer Suzanne Greenberg's debut collection of short stories, Speed-Walk and Other Stories, occurs in the "The Queen of Laundry," in which a woman gets a glimpse of the back of her young daughter's neck "where light brown hair grew in a swirled pattern. I didn't know if other mothers hungered after their children in this way. It wasn't something anyone I knew talked about, the yearning to breathe back in whole the strange bodies we had released into the world." It's a marvelous formulation of maternal awe—simply put but with a powerful mythic undertow—but what's so interesting about it is that the mother, rather than indulging it, wants the feeling to go away. "Maybe a second child," she goes on, "would have halved my desire, restrained it into something recognizable and polite."
Almost all the characters who occupy the center of Greenberg's subtle stories of suburban discontent—divorced women, recent widowers, neglected children, mothers who find themselves inexplicably angry about their lives, old women who discover they don't really like their own children—prefer the restrained, the recognizable and the polite to the longing that periodically erupts in their hearts and reminds them of the scary depths of their disaffection. James Robison, the author of a couple of memorable books in the 1980s who shares Greenberg's minimalist technique, once wrote that "most people want more but for me there's already too much," and you can practically see Greenberg's characters nodding fiercely in agreement. The male narrator of the title story, whose wife has recently died, finds himself "padding around my little house as if I were trespassing." The music playing in the background "depressed and stirred me. I felt buoyant with suffering, part of a huge arc of human failure." This painful buoyancy, like the mother's when she sees her daughter's neck, appears briefly only to be put down by the general grind of daily detail that the widower prefers to spend his time thinking about. But it hovers nonetheless—spurring, almost forcing him to attend to the other buoyancies around him—giving him and his story a delicate and poignant wistfulness. Lots of Greenberg's characters could be the guy in the Elvis Costello song, ruefully singing about "all this useless beauty."
We get an idea why Greenberg's characters suffer from the feeling that "there's already too much"—why they decide to live their lives small—from the stories in the collection that are told from a child's point of view. In "Two Parties," a little girl named Victoria is being given a birthday party at a park near Belmont Shore, but her mother is "angry-busy," her father casually careless. They don't bring utensils, so the kids can't eat, and they even forget to sing "Happy Birthday." In fact, as the story unfolds, both parents disappear, effectively abandoning the girl and her friends to the other partygoers at the park, led by a slightly menacing adult who feeds them pizza and then chases them on the playground. Victoria hides under a slide, but the man grabs her. "She feels his hand move between her legs, outside and then inside her panties. 'Getting out the sand,' he whispers, before letting her go." This brief molestation is painful enough, but what's worse is that we know the girl won't tell when her mother and father return, that the distance between her and her parents is already unbridgeable. Her birthday cake "has no taste but Victoria eats anyway," a good, dutiful girl who will grow up feeling unloved and mistrustful, moving through a world she's afraid to taste.
We might make less of this if another story, "Indoor-Outdoor Pool," didn't have almost precisely the same thematic structure. We have a little boy this time, spending a vacation week at a hotel with his divorced parents—the fact that the parents are divorced is a nice touch: Greenberg's stories often begin with plot conceits that skew the commonplace in promising ways. The boy's folks neglect him, too. When he wakes up from a nap in the hotel room, he finds himself alone, though his mother has left him a note that he can barely read, telling him "Be back soon." He wanders down to the hotel pool, only to find himself nearly molested as well. When he returns, he discovers that his parents have just finished having sex in the father's room across the hall. The boy's parents, we see, are incomprehensible to him. Their affections are untrustworthy, and we can see him developing a consciousness that will accept lovelessness as a matter of simple fact.
Such stories remind us that the techniques of literary minimalism, which Greenberg practices with an uncompromising and frankly unfashionable purity—Raymond Carver and early Frederick Barthelme, among others, are the forerunners here—are most effective when they emerge from a persuasive set of emotions rather than a literary creed. The emotions in question here have to do with an almost primal sense of disappointment, the conviction that life is not going to yield up much in terms of love, comfort or emotional connection, so the best thing is to limit oneself to a narrow emotional range that allows for a little pleasure, a joke or surprise here and there, and just enough attentiveness to the world to record the discoveries—eerie, funny, consoling, fearful—that keep one from feeling dead inside.
Such discoveries and painful buoyancies are what keep Greenberg's characters alive, and they, along with her expert craftsmanship, keep the reading experience fresh. Greenberg dispenses, for the most part, with traditional plot, preferring to structure her stories around the vague and sometimes accidental momentums of her characters' whims. In "My Treat, Geronimo," an elderly woman finds herself sitting next to a boy on a train; when he gets off at the wrong stop, she takes him to visit her daughter, brands him as her own by getting him a haircut, and discovers a longing for him that she doesn't feel for her own blood. In "The Visit," a woman who's made a mess of her life is visited by her mother, but the mother, defiantly independent and chirpy, decides to pitch a tent in the backyard so her daughter will have the space to repair her relationship with her husband. The woman, in a fit of confusion and frustration, finds herself trying to sell the tent out from under her mother. The structure of the stories seems to run off the rails just as her characters' lives do.
Sometimes a story is held together by nothing more than the rickety architecture of symbolic or emotional motif. The book's longest and most ambitious story, "Repeat After Me," is about three couples having a dinner party. Playwright Wallace Shawn used to talk about going to parties where he never could figure out what was really going on, and this is one of those thirtysomething, liquor-laden, pot-smoking parties. The story lights on the odd remark, the pregnant image, the passing revelation, the moment of withheld desire—it's a kind of languorous striptease of characters and their relationships, whose accretionary power comes upon the reader unawares. Greenberg plays the story like a modernist symphony, balancing clashing emotional registers in a fragile whole that is at once funny, strange and haunted by loneliness.
I'm a good friend of Suzanne's and am noted in the acknowledgments, but this book's been vetted by a big cheese—Rick Moody selected it as the winner of the nationally prominent Drue Heinz Literature Prize for 2003—so you can take it from him if you don't take it from me: Speed-Walk and Other Stories is the remarkable and heartening debut of a major new voice in Southern California fiction.
Speed-Walk and Other Stories by Suzanne Greenberg; University of Pittsburgh Press. Hardcover,
172 pages, $24.
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