That Sick Feeling

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Janice Shapiro’s characters see that the game of womanhood has no winners—and some are frantic for an escape that they do not find.

Janice Shapiro’s debut short-story collection, Bummer, wears its punk rock ethos on its sleeve. The cover, with its black-and-white color scheme offset only by the magenta title, is reminiscent of Bikini Kill album art, and Shapiro’s stories are peppered with the punk rock icons: Paul Westerberg, Richard Hell, Johnny Thunder. In the first story, the narrator proclaims that “if punk was about anything other than fashion to begin with, it was about the glorification of the losers of the world; it gave us a voice, it gave us a look, it gave us a kind of cockeyed dignity that practically felt like inspiration.”

Punk rock, in my admittedly limited understanding, is in part about refusing to let being out of tune or ugly stop you from saying what you need to say—about refusing to be bothered if you’ve failed at a game whose rules you didn’t decide. Shapiro’s narrators, whose sentences sometimes jerk and jolt in their struggle to tell us what it’s like to be them, are torchbearers of this tradition.

The narrator of “Maternity” feels, at her job, “that sick feeling you get when you know you’ve got to do something… but also know, just know, you’re going to fail even before you do it.” These lines could be spoken by nearly any of Shapiro’s narrators—they are women who know they’ll be defeated even before the game begins. “1966,” which appears early in the collection, traces the young narrator’s emerging awareness of the ways in which time is going to be unkind to her. At age eight or nine, the narrator notices that her mother “looked terrible in bathing suits,” and this observation corresponds with a more general understanding of her mother’s disempowered domestic life. The narrator’s teenage babysitter is also discovering the limited set of choices she’ll be offered as a woman, and she serves in the story as the voice for the narrator’s inarticulate sense of dread. When asked what she wants, the babysitter declares, “I want never to have been born.” Shapiro’s characters see that the game of womanhood has no winners, and some, like the teenage babysitter, are frantic for an escape that they do not find.

And yet, in the best of these stories, the women bravely gather up every scrap of “cockeyed dignity” they have and forge ahead. They may know from the beginning that the house always wins, but they haven’t given up. The younger narrators have usually failed in some way to navigate the maze of sexual choices offered to young women, and are in situations (having sex for money, having affairs with married men) for which most of society has little sympathy. Shapiro’s older narrators, meanwhile, have lost their looks and go through their days aware, as one of them observes, that people act as if older women don’t exist. Young or old, the women of Bummer know that by virtue of their position in the social hierarchy they are expected to shut up. But this they will not do.

The high point of Shapiro’s collection comes in the final story, “The Old Bean.” The narrator, a middle-aged woman working in a coffee shop, explains at the start:

Because I am at least twenty years older than most of my co-workers, I have made it clear that if there is only one seat available during our breaks, it belongs to me.

“This is not a question of comfort,” I tell them. “This is about survival!”

Like the best punk rock songs, the best of these stories hum with the urgency of a voice that knows that speaking up is “about survival.”

The collection does not always succeed. “Small,” a retelling of the story of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves in which the dwarves work on a marijuana farm outside Santa Cruz and Snow White makes her living in a seedy massage parlor, is too enamored of its Francesca Lia Block-like conceit to deliver an emotional punch as strong as those offered by other stories. But the rest are captivating in their unflinching portrayals of individuals confronting a largely hostile or indifferent world. The narrator of “The Old Bean” remembers, when her daughter was young and consumed by worry about the future, telling the girl, “Teddy, be free! Be free, Teddy!” This is where the heart of the collection lies: in this subversive whisper, passed on from mother to daughter. The mother in “1966” who “looked terrible in bathing suits” would, the narrator recounts,

plan another diet, vow to eat more Knudsen cottage cheese, forsake sugar for saccharine, tune in to Jack LaLanne more religiously, and then, knowing she looked terrible, would throw on a short shift and bravely escort me and my sister out the back door, down the driveway, onto the street where anyone could see her…

… and then to the neighbors’ pool where, despite the fact that she does not know how to swim, the mother will get in the water and give it her best shot.

Shannon Elderon is a PhD student in the Creative Writing program at the University of Cincinnati. More from this author →