The characters in Gillian Linden’s debut collection, Remember How I Told You I Loved You?, struggle through a time of life that is ripe with possibility—college and the years immediately after—when new friends and new loves are often just around the corner, when almost any path can seem open, and when (sadly) most of them, like most of us, have no idea what to do with these abundant and blessed realities.
The children of the upper and upper-middle classes populate Linden’s stories; they have the sort of parents who may not berate their offspring for choosing an impractical college major but will fret over their kids’ failure to take the LSAT senior year, or their choice of a summer job in a restaurant where all their friends work over an internship at a consulting firm.
Despite their privileges, these people eventually fall out of their collegiate nests into the same muddled, puzzling world everyone else faces, where they have to confront all the challenges of adult life without a moment’s preparation in actually being an adult. Such years of promise and disappointment are ripe terrain for humor and pathos. But Linden, despite a certain degree of skill as a writer, fails at realizing any of this potential. She’s like an archer with fine form and stance who unfailingly misses the bullseye and instead gives us an arc of arrows that follow the outer ring perfectly.
The first story, “Common Rooms,” epitomizes the collection’s failings. The story relates the vagaries of friendship and love in the lives of Karen and Lizzie, roommates at an unnamed liberal arts college, told from Karen’s point of view. They are both non-characters who allow themselves to be defined by the most trivial externals because there is so little within them:
Friendship seems unlikely, but they’re brought together by two things: both went to Italy recently and discovered limoncello and both think their seminar teacher is sleeping with a classmate, a girl who has a silver stud in the crease of her nostril. They both admire the stud.
Well. Both of them visited one of the jewels of Western civilization. What did they gain from the experience? A fruity liqueur. And in a suspected case of student-professor sex, they’re not concerned or curious about the possibility of abuse of power, academic favoritism, or an Electra complex, but a nose stud.
There’s nothing wrong with shallow characters in and of themselves, but they have to serve a purpose. And in the case of the characters in Remember, I’m not sure what it is. If it’s satire, the characters need to make me laugh. (They didn’t.) If it’s not, Linden needs to make care me about them. (I don’t.) “Commons Rooms” closes on a note of bizarre Schadenfreude masquerading as pity that shows Karen as unevolved as she was at the story’s beginning. At a post-college social event someone tells Karen that a former boyfriend has literally gotten smaller: Karen “[is] sorry for him, and this makes her feel good.”
Karen, Lizzie, and the people they know reappear in different roles in the subsequent stories—an effective technique for both developing character and providing narrative cohesion to a collection of short stories, à la Amy Bloom’s National Book Award Finalist collection, Come to Me.
But whereas Bloom’s characters flare with an often painful intensity, I find Linden’s almost completely unmemorable. For me, starting each story was an occasion to re-read an earlier one, since I recognized names but couldn’t recall anything about the characters. This may reflect a failure of development. It may be deliberate. Either way, it makes for unsatisfying reading.
I sometimes found minor characters who were never named easier to remember than major ones who were. I could remember one of Karen’s boyfriends more easily than I could remember Karen herself, or Lizzie, because this man was “the guy with the fedora.” It helped to recall that Karen and Lizzie both liked limoncello, but that didn’t help me tell them apart.
The repetitive emphasis on consumer goods in Remember is an unsubtle reminder that virtually the only realities in the lives of these characters are material. Take Daphne, who moves to a new town to be with her boyfriend:
Daphne’s social life was thin. Ed and Dennis were always in class or at work and she still didn’t know anyone else. On the other hand, Dennis’s grocery store sold a nut mix which Daphne would eat in the afternoon.
When I read this I knew I was supposed to find it funny, but I didn’t. My primary reaction to such passages in Remember was to wish that Karl Marx was still alive: his theory of the dominant role of commodities in human relations may have come to full flower in the pages of this book.
But limoncello, fedoras, and nut mixes aren’t enough to make me care about these characters—not even with an accidental vindication of Marx thrown in. Linden has obvious technical talent, but her writing, like her characters, needs more personality and heart.