The prose of some books keeps you at arm’s length. Resists the idea of transparency or security. Dares you to look deeper to find meaning. The sentences in Jac Jemc’s collection, A Different Bed Every Time, require untangling. Sentences like, “Your body flood us and we rocks and fogs, delivering. The climate outside our body are a busy woman,” dare us to think about the certainties of language and structure we take for granted. Jemc’s is not light or easy prose, but prose that is beautiful and complex. And worth the effort.
There’s something to be said for an author creating an experience of reading that acts as a physical manifestation of her character’s lives. Jemc does this in A Different Bed Every Time. She translates the distressing emotional entanglements of character into the reading process itself. We, her readers, feel frustration and alienation on the same level as her characters. Jemc’s sentences, fraught with the juxtaposition of generalities and uniquely specific metaphors, are a mirror for each character’s angst. These sentences require us as readers to sort through complexity; it’s a reflection of the way the characters look at the world.
“Every night I stunned myself with gin,” she opens the unsettling collection, in “A Violence”:
“On a date, a man and I ended up at the airport and ate rhinestones. We moved fast and real. The plane progressed in handfuls of miles at a time. I refused to keep secrets, but he told them to me anyway. After a few days of gorging under the guise of vacation, I hit the road, figuring out how to be kind. This man could rile me, lift me, convince me with his hands. It felt too much like disadvantage.”
The pace of this opening story creates the sense of a hurried and harried life. A series of men, none of them quite right. It’s Jemc’s narrator who is not quite right, herself. Jemc is comfortable disorienting her reader with jarring images, often to reveal a concrete plot detail in an unexpected way. “A Violence” shows the character’s life in romantic entanglements. A list of misadventures with the wrong man. In “A Violence” as well as “A Heaven Gone” and “Points on Staying Alive in That Old War,” Jemc plays with structure. A Different Bed Every Time is as diverse in form as in content.
Most often in A Different Bed, we see characters only briefly. Some of the stories are no longer than a few pages. Others are mere moments in time. Jemc writes to us as though we already know these people, know their stories well enough to jump in midstream. And in a way, they are familiar. But the trick of Jemc’s work is in revealing to us how these lives seem like our own. We come to our own unexpected associations with her original and bright language. Her nuanced comparisons are wholly fresh and original. In “Hammer, Damper,” parents are dealing with the tragic illness of a child:
“The loud will soon perish for the quiet. The mother will croon out the happiest songs, transubstantiated to doleful lullabies. She will think of the nest she’s formed in the left ventricle of her heart just for the child. The child will grow lighter than an inflatable beach ball. The mother will squeeze him next to her chest, afraid he might be carried away.”
Jemc writes emotion with naked honesty, but often comes to concrete images or analogies in a roundabout way. Her collection is unique for its command of unusual imagery. Jemc never goes for the easy comparison or the simple metaphor. What this means is her sentences require more time. More attention. Does this result in meaning that lies just out of our reach from time to time? Yes, but this is only a way to encourage us to read more carefully. To look deeper.
In many of Jemc’s stories, the point is not a great conflict or an external force exerting power, creating drama. No, Jemc’s stories concentrate on internal battles; moments when characters have to define for themselves what’s going to be important, or learn to live with the way their loved ones see them. In “Ratman,” the character has sex atop newspapers from September 11. Both characters in the story try to live with the awkwardness of the national tragedy between them and around them.
“Magpie cried on September 12th. I had never seen tears come from him before. I tried to appreciate the gestures, the rat and the tears, once I realized I didn’t have to deal with them. I measured our life together and divided and divided and divided, and though it felt like I was making it smaller, in reality I was metastasizing it. Magpie looked at me in that way that wanted me to look the same way back, but finally, I looked away.”
The dead rat as metaphor, here, explains Jemc’s characters’ feelings about difficult concepts like grief or loss or the weighty encumbrance of September 11th’s events. But in a way the obtuseness of a dead rat body brings an element of tangible death into the couple’s relationship. Sometimes a dead rat is just a dead rat. Sometimes it’s more.
In “Bent Back,” Jemc also employs a collage of dissimilar images. The main character’s scoliosis and her sister’s paintings of her crooked spine become not only a backdrop to complicate family and teenage emotional tensions, but they provide enough of an oddity that Jemc succeeds in throwing us, her readers, off the trail of anything even slightly ordinary. That is the magic of Jemc’s work. Her stories mine the everyday for the unusual. Even “normal” is not. She lays beautiful groundwork in her sentences so she can highlight the odd and unusual lives of each character.
This is a collection that’s hard to read in a sitting. I found that the punches of each story, and so many stories in succession, were almost too much to take in in at once. Jemc’s stories are rough. Unapologetic. And they’re not easy or transparent. But read in doses, they reveal something about not just the characters, but how we as readers want to read character in a story. What’s comfortable for us as readers? Why might an author want to shake that foundation? How can an author push language to be more complex? Jemc presents something hyper-ordinary in A Different Bed Every Time.