While a short story collection can be knitted together in a lot of different ways—character, theme, setting, subject matter or tone—how tightly it should be woven is less defined. Some collections are so knotted that all the life is wrung out of them. Others are so loose it feels as if the writer had to dig deep to fill up pages.
In her debut collection, I Want to Show You More, Jamie Quatro has accomplished a rare paradox: the collection is stitched together and, yet, it’s loose and baggy, letting in a lot of surprise.
Short shorts live next to long stories; surrealism is neighbors with realism. You can hear the murmurs of Flannery O’Connor, and also George Saunders, Lorrie Moore and Donald Barthelme. Thematic threads hold some of it together—God, transcendence, adultery, running, illness, and family. And in a few of the stories, we revisit some of the same characters.
The stories are all set in Lookout Mountain, Georgia, which straddles Georgia and Tennessee. It’s a perfect metaphor for Quatro’s collection: bagginess and a tight weaving coexisting. It’s bound to frustrate some readers and delight others. But that’s one of the risks of taking a risk.
One of the most prevalent themes is adultery, which is sprinkled throughout the book through a series of stories. The collection opens with “Caught Up,” in which the narrator reveals her affair to her mother. The narrator has spent ten months talking daily to her lover on the phone. The affair never is consummated, but in her mother’s view, it might as well have: “It’s all the same in God’s eyes,” says her mother.
Throughout, Quatro is not cynical about God or Christian beliefs. The narrators (women) in the adultery string of stories grapple with lust, passion, guilt, and God. The adulterous narrator appears again in “Imperfections,” a two-page story in which the man kisses the narrator’s forehead. The kiss makes her right eye burn, “Like you put a seal on my forehead, I wrote to him later, and hot wax dripped down into my eye.” And she returns again in other short pieces, which begin to feel like the heavy, complicated breathing of two lovers held apart.
The most original stories fall into the camp of surrealism. Like all good surrealism, the strangeness of what occurs is a product of the characters’ psychological states. In “Decomposition: A Primer for Promiscuous Housewives,” the symbolic is made literal, when the narrator tells her husband about her affair, only to find her lover in her bed as a wax corpse. Narrated in the second person, Quatro writes, “You collapse beside the man, wrap your warm hand around one of his, the fingers already so stiff you have to push them down. You knew your confession would do this. You thought it would happen gradually. What does he do for you that I can’t, your husband says. Life continues: there are children to be fed and bathed, classroom parties and holidays. Still, the corpse remains, decomposing, smelling up the house.”
In “Ladies and Gentlemen of the Pavement,” the narrator is running a marathon, but, like all the other runners, she has to run with a statue in her backpack. “Some people have to wear those framed packs you see on Himalayan hikes, their statues jutting up above their heads. These runners have to be careful not to make any sudden movements… It’s not uncommon to see paramedics carrying away, on stretchers, runners who’ve been knocked unconscious by someone’s oversized piece of rock.” Quatro does a wonderful job not explaining the logic behind the statues, thereby opening up the story to a multitude of interpretations, just as a good story should.
“Demolition” is the Christian’s passage through the “crucible of doubt,” as Dostoevsky called it. A deaf man visits a small town church, accompanied by sign language interpreter. At one point, he stands and the interpreter tells the congregation, “He has never believed in Christianity,” and he abruptly leaves. The announcement, perhaps his very presence, brings about the physical demise of the church, as pieces of it fall down. Soon, the congregation begins to doubt their faith. The deaf man returns and leads services in a cave, where the rallying cry is “Eradicate shame.”
After reading the collection, there is a sense of having read so much more than 204 pages. The paradox of tight and loose has let in so much more, with the variety of stories and styles soliciting and intensifying the reader’s imaginative engagement.