These stories by Jim Hanas are about something important: how much suffering arises in the gap between our public identities and whatever kernel of self is left inside.
My old boss at a lit mag gave me a single piece of advice before sending me to slosh through the slush pile: “Distrust first impressions.” Here is a case where that advice is warranted. At first glance, Jim Hanas’s new story collection, Why They Cried, published exclusively as an e-book, seems to be a bundle of George Saunders-lite: clever, guarded, self-consciously odd stories that follow cute conceits as if they were geometry proofs. A couple—a working woman and a compliant, helpless man—only speak to each other by assigning dialogue to the dog: “Look,” she said. “He’s going: Really, I hate this thing. I’ve got to bite it. I hate it. Like somebody who gets drunk and talks too loud…” They can’t communicate. Is she seeing someone else? They break up. They reunite. The dog barks. End of story. These types of stories too often play like Rube Goldberg machines. They accomplish a basic task, catharsis, through means that are sometimes fantastic but more often just inane. There is rarely a sense of possibility: characters seem to behave according to a pre-ordained schematic. They aren’t stories so much as devices, and devices require the virtuosity and generosity of a Barthelme or a Borges. But then something strange happened: the second story. “Pangaea” opens onto a vague, strange, sterile office world. Jeanie, the protagonist, gets so tired by lunch that she drives to a motel and sleeps until dawn. She seems to have given up control over her actions, even her thoughts. “Thinking had somehow taken place,” we are told. Her decisions are described as “newly excavated.” Jeanie has an odd sense that some invisible force is doing her job for her (she designs retail displays—simulacra, “Plexiglass representations”). But this feeling of lost control is a delusion:
The work would eventually get done. Not miraculously, as she hoped, but by her. She would do it. A deadline would loom and terror at the prospect of not having done the work would consume her, materializing in her mind as a giant boulder or a fiery asteroid, hurtling swiftly and steadily toward her. This terror would become excruciating in the way that only insubstantial pain can be.
This goes on—Jeanie’s sense of time gets confused, she may or may not sleep with a co-worker—until Jeanie has a stray thought about a pair of contact lenses. She just knows, for no reason at all, that these contacts “would make her look like a cat.” We never see her put on the contacts—we are never told whether she’s decided to put them on or not, and, since she’s given up agency, her actions seem not to matter anymore—and yet, as she looks into the mirror…
But I’ll let you read the story for yourself. It’s a surprising, haunting ending, with Yeats’s “click like a closing box,” and it slapped my first impression silly.
The mysterious, beautiful ending of “Pangaea” is the rule, rather than the exception, and it turns out that Why They Cried is, in fact, about something important: how much suffering arises in the gap between our constructed public identities and whatever kernel of self is left inside.
Take “The Cryerer.” An actor is ill. He’s just gone through a break-up. He is known for his expertise at weeping. The Cryerer gets the first call to play sad, because “he had range. From a single rolling tear to a face-wrenching, hyperventilated blubber, there was no cry the Cryerer couldn’t do.” His ability to express grief seems to be a genetic gift, a permanent facial fixture, like that of the scream-faced mother in David Foster Wallace’s “Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature.” In public “sometimes people asked if he was okay, if he was sad, but even they didn’t know why.” The Cryerer’s sorrowful visage fetches the highest bids at a celebrity date auction: “Women were curious and concerned. They wanted to help.”
So here is a guy who happens to look sad, and he exploits that chance for profit and charity, all of which is fine and interesting—but what makes Hanas’s story work is that the Cryerer is actually sad. The action, in this story and others, develops out of the tension between a character’s inner feeling and the masks he or she puts over that feeling.
Hanas is unnervingly accurate at nailing the feeling of lost control. In “The Arab Bank,” perhaps the best story here, Marco, a French street tough in Cannes, signs his life over to a sinister Algerian in order to live the glamorous existence of a hustler. After a while Marco is told to lay low—he’s been seen mugging a famous American actor. And he doesn’t like laying low. The power comes from Marco’s realization, never stated, that when he promised loyalty to the Algerian, he promised it for life. It’s a story about the unforeseen consequences of giving in.
Hanas has a gift for vivid description. The Cannes Film Festival is “a chaotic scrum with everyone—the players, the press, the locals—jockeying for position.” A packet of birth control is a disk “ringed by plastic teardrops, each teardrop containing a tiny pill.” A going-nowhere slacker “enjoyed letting indecision weigh on him like damp clothing.” A man folds a bird’s “broken wing against its body like a kickstand.” Hanas also displays an effortless talent for straight-ahead yarn-spinning; in stories like stories like “The Audubon Society” and “You Can Touch This!,” you feel you’re in for a ride, but you don’t quite know where you’re going.
Much of the conversation around e-books has revolved the question of invisibility—that is, how easily the device can disappear, leaving just the human reader and the text. Since Hanas writes with a swift clip, deploys images so judiciously and vividly, and demonstrates real insight into the way we live now, I imagine most readers will be able to forget their devices and fall into these stories, either after overcoming a first impression or, more likely, right away.
Why They Cried is now available as a Joyland eBook from ECW Press. It can be purchased for Kindle, iBooks, Sony Reader, or as a PDF directly from the publisher. Visit whytheycried.com for these and other download options.