In the age of the MFA, universities are increasingly tasked with supporting our truly important writers and works of literature, either through faculty appointments and fellowship, or, as is the case with Jessica Hollander’s debut collection, through a publishing prize. Hollander’s In These Times the Home Is a Tired Place, the 2013 winner of The University of North Texas’ Katherine Anne Porter Prize for short fiction, has the potential to bring broader attention to a small market press.
In These Times is a loosely connected series of nineteen short stories of quite varying length, with some of them only a couple pages long. The collection has a nameless ubiquity to it: few of the characters are identified beyond simple monikers such as “mom,” “dad,” “boyfriend,” “sister,” “friend,” etc. As a result, it’s hard to judge the independence or inter-reliance of any particular span of the stories, though they all cover similar broad themes like womanhood and family, such as in “This Kind of Happiness”:
… a frazzled single mother: pushing a single stroller down an icy street with plastic grocery bags hung from the handles, the mother’s frame obscured by a fat purple coat, huge boots, and shoulder-slung duffels. This seemed a heroic image. ‘Single mother,’ she whispered to the frosty wind.
Images like this one occur again and again in Hollander’s stories, and in the end provide much more of a tie than any overarching plot. Women continually reach the limits of their societal parameters, eventually breaking them to freeing or disastrous results. Near the end of the collection, after Hollander has introduced ten or so mothers/fathers and a handful of boyfriends, keeping a plot line or characterization straight in one’s mind becomes dizzying. This generality in each story makes each family into a sort of stand-in for the American experiences of growing up, living together, and finally breaking out on one’s own.
In each story, Hollander opens with a seemingly simple moment or familiar encounter, which she quickly turns into an absurd abstraction. In “March On,” a girl visits her feeble grandmother during her parents’ divorce and her mother’s moving out. Working an already tense situation, Hollander does not stop pushing. As she waits for her grandmother to open the door, the girl imagines “Grandma wearing giant headphones, painting a hundred balls of socks or the angles of her ceiling, blissfully entranced by some new-age spiritual music into which pounding and ringing blurred easily.” Each story is filled with these mundane moments that are twisted to the fantastical, bizarre, or absurd.
Hollander’s writing oscillates between ribald insanity and exasperated speech. In “What Became of What She Had,” the daughter receives phone messages “from a man comparing Christine’s body parts to various food and drink: her mouth was orange soda. Her calf was a smooth curved eggplant.” The story “The Year We Are Twenty-Three” includes this exuberant reduction in communication between a boyfriend and girlfriend:
we have agreed to leave notes every day on the refrigerator for each other… The idea is to not think about what we are writing but just to write it, with the mutual understanding that we are trying out ideas and seeing if they make any sense.
Again and again characters turn to elaborate or extraordinary measures (such as only communicating through refrigerator notes) once they reach the end of their capacities for love or change or each other. In isolation, these moments are beautiful and insightful, but the abundance of this sort of writing creates a sort of scatterbrained fatigue in the reader.
Conversely, Hollander’s evocative imagery does a marvelous job of capturing the sort of existential ennui that many young millennials have faced since the start of The Great Recession. In “Like Falling Down and Laughing,” the young narrator talks about how she and her boyfriend lost their jobs teaching high school literature in Michigan and had to move back to her boyfriend’s hometown of Chapel Hill. She ends up teaching gym and he works as a substitute in an elementary school. This frustration comes to the fore one evening:
Brant reached for the bottle of red wine and knocked it over. The wine soaked into the white carpet. He kicked my legs getting up and stumbled toward the kitchen, where I assumed he’d get a towel. Instead he came back with a steak knife and began sawing the couch arm’s upholstery. “Our life’s over here,” he said.
Brant’s destructive impulse encapsulates the volatility and temporality that has been the norm for young professionals: lack of stability, inability to support oneself, and the ultimate truth that “’you can’t lock in a thing like adulthood.’”
Later, the narrator seems to copy Brant’s destructive impulses. She “pulled the welcome mat inside the apartment and laid it on the floor, like the apartment was the outside and the world was a place to feel comfortable in. Plants and furniture surrounded me. With a steak knife I hacked away at the couch. I tried to laugh. I laughed.” After a blossoming friendship with a student, the narrator has achieved a sort of Zen about her life. Her reversing of the welcome mat shows her releasing her attachment to her carefully and tenuous constructed adult life. Though she also starts dismantling the couch, her motivation and reaction are antithetical to Brant’s fatalism: she laughs. She has moved beyond her need or desire to replicate previous generations’ ideal lifestyle, the whole concept of which is so strange it becomes humorous. In moments like these, Hollander’s characters wander into the paralysis and anguish of an entire generation.