“She wonders if sex is like math, like if you make a man want to eat your hair or go too far, does it follow that you balance the equation by letting him.”
“I want to go to the concert.” Rainey.
“Jesus God, Rainey. I want to eat your hair.” Richard.
Meet Rainey and Richard, page 7. Rainey: beautiful, seductive, curious, fourteen. Richard: lustful, insatiable, a composer, thirty-nine. This is how you begin Dylan Landis’s debut, Normal People Don’t Live Like This, and unlike many story collections, you finish one story and immediately turn to the next. You leave UPS at the door, punching the bell and screaming in Spanish, you ignore the cat swiping all the pens off your desk, and read on.
You read Normal People on the treadmill. You read it on the sidewalk. You meet Landis’s characters and you like them more than the people you know in real life. You think, while tearing through the pages: This woman knows all my secrets.
In “Jazz,” Richard and Rainey struggle in the grass of Central Park, Richard groping her pale belly, Rainey rolling her eyes. Whatever it may look like, the narrator tells us, Rainey is most assuredly not being raped: “It is true,” the story remarks, “that Rainey radiates power and light.”
It is also true that Rainey has asked Richard if he will marry her when she turns sixteen. True that Rainey wears tea-rose oil between her toes, believing it can drive a man wild. You receive Rainey through a cleverly deceptive narrator who, in each story, brings light to the real conflicts, overriding those easily gathered from the surface narrative. Landis punches holes through conventional wisdom, ideas about right and wrong and who is to blame. The narrator of “Jazz” dismisses the reductive idea that Rainey is the victim, Richard the abuser. “Jazz” isn’t about victimization, nor is it about abuse—it’s about the inner dilemmas of an adolescent as she navigates the unwieldy power of seduction.
She thinks how this is one more interesting thing a man can be reduced to. She wonders if sex is like math, like if you make a man want to eat your hair or go too far, does it follow that you balance the equation by letting him.
The question of rape lingers long after the last paragraph of the brief story, as does the question of how to present truths which might be manipulated by the teller. Perhaps this is what is so elusive, fascinating, and overwhelmingly cool about Dylan Landis: She draws landscapes and narratives around characters who couldn’t be ordinary if they tried, characters who deny moral categorization. Much like the work of Alice Munro, the intrigue of Landis’s stories lies in small gestures and the exploration of characters’ psyches with a thorough, delicate eye.
But you learn to keep your guard up. Landis’s characters walk in and out of stories, Rainey passing the torch, in “Fire,” to Leah, who remains in the spotlight for most of the remaining stories. Normal People has all the ingredients of a tight novel, yet remains a collection of closely tied stories with a few sharp detours. This looseness is occasionally frustrating—Landis’s characters are addictive, and so it can be disappointing when they disappear. You really like Rainey. And Oly. Even Helen. You feel dumped.
In the book’s final two stories, Helen makes a brave move into the world, and the realities of adulthood explode into Leah’s life. But Normal People doesn’t end when you set it on the night table; the collection contains small bursts of narrative from characters so real that they cannot fade into memory. You find yourself wondering, What would Leah do? You’ve made commitments to these characters. You want more.