The stories in Do Not Deny Me, Jean Thompson’s new collection, are concerned with main characters whose lives are scraped bare, who live in a world flattened by boredom and limitation. These characters do not even have the energy to name or recognize their existential dilemma as such, and small nuisances stand in for crises on a larger scale. Every once in a while, the reader, like the characters, gets the faintest hint of the transformation that ought to be triggered but is never quite accomplished.
Thompson, the author of four acclaimed collections, including Throw Like a Girl and Who Do You Love, seems to have deliberately pared down her style in Do Not Deny Me to suit the tenor of recent times: the collection seems inflected by the moral and cultural exhaustion of the George W. Bush era, in which bewildered resignation suffices in place of a deeply felt despair.
Yet these stories are anything but grim, thanks to Thompson’s wicked sense of humor. In “Soldiers of Spiritos,” the first story, Penrose, an English professor who is by his own admission a “dinosaur, a relic,” is simply clocking hours until retirement. The stately, scholarly articles he used to write have been abandoned in favor of a critical theory invested in everything but the text: “All the new, bright young hires wrote of hegemony and late-capitalist strategies of empire and protofeminists and psychomorphology and colonialism and other reification. It was an evil code he was unable to crack.” Thompson has irresistible fun skewering the jargon of contemporary literary theory, but her main character has lost interest in the alternative too: “It had been discouraging to realize that great, timeless literature, even that portion of it for which he had professed his special affinity and critical passion, was not an endlessly refilling well.” Penrose, like so many of the characters in these stories, has lost faith in the act of investing in his own life. His only solace in this strange new world gutted of meaning is to write a science fiction novel, Soldiers of Spiritos, that thinly disguises his faddish colleagues as conquerors of a people who can only mount a “doomed resistance.” And then one day as he is teaching Eugene O’Neill’s play Long Day’s Journey into Night, an “unremarkable B student,” Sarah Snyder, bursts into tears in class. Later, when Penrose counsels her in his office, the girl’s predicament—her feeling response to literature gets in the way of her ability to wield critical theory—ignites just a tiny spark of conviction in him, “an ember flaring as they breathed on it.”
Such small, precarious moments of victory are the best these characters can manage. In “Do Not Deny Me,” Julia, after the death of her boyfriend, is briefly lured by the mystical promise of the occult (clairvoyance, contact with the dead) but ultimately realizes that this is a way of dodging rather than facing her grief. In “Woman at the Well,” a woman serving a life sentence for murdering her husband attends a prison Bible Study group for lack of anything better to do, but when one of the inmates has an epileptic seizure, she’s jolted into compassion for another young prisoner, seeing in her a “sweet baby girl” where before she saw only a cruel tormenter. In “Treehouse,” Garrison builds a treehouse in his backyard, an utterly purposeless project for a man whose daughter and son are grown. Inexplicably alienated in his job, his marriage, even his relations with his children, Garrison pursues this project because “mindlessness was what he wanted. But you couldn’t go after it straight on. You couldn’t even really want it. You had to sneak up on it, forget all about it, and if you were lucky it showed itself, like a rare bird.” The true purpose of the treehouse is to provide himself with a refuge from a world “too cluttered with bewilderment and pain.”
The best stories in Do Not Deny Me make us feel the alienation and disorientation of Thompson’s characters as an experience that is paradoxically rich, emotionally and metaphorically. The precision and originality of her language enable us to inhabit this leached despair and feel how close it veers to genuine anguish, to the almost-possible investment of real feeling. Which is why we can sympathize with the incapacitated stroke victim who plots revenge on his controlling wife, or the calculating corporate hack who routinely betrays others but is spellbound when he watches a construction worker fall several stories to his death. Which is why we can be terrified—and once in a while consoled—by people who almost come to grips with the nameless source of their despair.
Yet some of the stories also feel thin. In “Little Brown Bird,’ the portrait of a woman who quilts in order to smother her confusion and pain comes off as sentimental, and a few other stories attempt to get too much from the trick of unreliable narration. At times race consciousness serves as a pat shorthand for the shortcomings of the main characters. Yet these failings reflect the challenges Thompson sets for herself and which she manages brilliantly in other stories. She’s determined to make the quotidian—lives lived on diminished terms—suggest a horror at the periphery, and to document the courage it takes to acknowledge this.
And she’s going to war with the debased language of a media-saturated culture. In the last story in the book, “Her Untold Story,” the recently divorced Lynn watches reality TV, shows that “aimed to find the most miserable and deserving people in America and shower them with consumer goods: clothing, appliances, real estate.” Lynn’s own disappointments somehow do not live up to the standards of television hosts who do their “hopped up best to yank at the heartstrings,” and yet it’s in the acutely observed, quiet miseries that Thompson locates sympathy for her character and an odd hopefulness. The story ends as Lynn sets off with a fellow divorcée for a jog, her one strategy for warding off despair, and repeats to herself the catchphrase “joyful in our beings” until such time as joy might be possible for her again. This small declaration of faith beautifully evokes the aims of the work as a whole.