The Sunday Rumpus Book Review: From Here by Jen Michalski

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Many authors’ stories blend together across a collection; they struggle to convey a unique voice in each piece. Not so with Jen Michalski’s From Here. Though her characters share common experiences—dashed hopes, disappointments, misunderstanding by loved ones—the voice in each story of From Here is fresh and specific. Whether she is writing of a voyeuristic teen watching her neighbors break relationships or a Chechnyan girl who falls prey to a drug dealer, the unique perspective in each piece offers her a platform from which to explore the depth of experience. She writes across age and gender lines. Jen Michalski excels in subtlety that is made possible by her nuanced understanding of voice.

In the story about neighbors, “The Queen of Swords,” her younger protagonist struggles to understand adult relationships and how they might include pain. After seeing one of her neighbors breaking plates—and then leaving them in the yard—she feels a compulsion to tidy up and keep the wreckage.

I had never really spoken to Vanessa until she caught me one day in her back yard picking up her plate shards. I wasn’t doing it out of charity; I wanted those shards, even if I didn’t exactly know why. I imagined the shattered pieces on my windowsill, their enameled tops catching the sunlight.

Her desire to clean up what she thinks is an emotional mess calls to mind the discomfort many young people feel about adult emotions, particularly their own as they emerge. Her feelings about relationships begin to coalesce around the perceived fight between her neighbors. Even after Vanessa eventually leaves, the plates hold both a sacrificial and emblematic importance. They are pain and affection, together:

I’d collected the pieces of plates from the yard after Vanessa was done—she hadn’t bothered to take them with her, and they reminded me of a sudden pain, a ferocious cut when I got unexpectedly cut cleaning up a rather large job […] Sometimes after it had healed and scarred, I’d take a piece of one of Vanessa’s old plate shards and run it along the fleshy ridge, sometimes fast, sometimes slow.

“The Queen of Swords” touches something we all come to understand. To allow positive human connection into our lives, we also invite pain. And this even darker truth: sometimes we make ourselves feel that pain so that we might feel at all.

From Here is witty as it is nuanced, and Michalski writes characters into awkward predicaments. In “Lillian in White,” Roy and Lillian, former lovers, meet again so Roy can drive Lillian to get an abortion. The baby is not Roy’s, but he can’t keep himself from imagining all of the implications of her pregnancy:

It is not his baby, certainly, but he still imagines the zygote in her belly with his chin and her eyes. An Ava Gardner-Frank Sinatra kind of breeding. Not Kurt and Courtney. He imagines steering her into taxicabs, doctor’s offices, on and off his thrift-store couch, delicately and inexpertly like a wheelbarrow. He seems them watching An American in Paris on Netflix together while she snacks on Buffalo wings and peppermint patties.

Roy and Lillian’s reunion under unusual circumstances offers Michalski the opportunity to explore the connective ties of relationships. What does it mean to truly need someone, even outside the bounds of a relationship? What restrictions keep us from articulating our true feelings when we’re in a relationship, and should be closest to the one we love?

Childhood imaginings feature in several stories, particularly the imagined adulthoods that young characters envision for themselves. Often, this sentiment is juxtaposed against a disappointing adult figure who struggles with his or her own demons, as in “Killing Rabbits.” Michalski’s characters don’t live up to what their parents want for them.

I took the fuse wires in my hands. They looked like tricolor spaghetti. I matched the colors of the wires on the ignition switch according to the diagram in the book. It was hard to believe that my love of Legos as a child did not wind up to be the gateway drug my father thought it would be.

But when Michalski flips perspective and offers a glimpse into the parent, disappointed he can’t meet the needs of his child, as in “You Were Only Waiting For This Moment To Arrive,” the reader sees that every piece of Michalski’s collection is about perspective. The divorced father in “You Were Only…” is doing his best to shelter his daughter (then, almost wholly unfamiliar to him) from a world that is going to be harsher than anything she can imagine.

In “The Paleolithic Age,” Michalski hints at her own process. Her character Jodie speaks of “A burning desire to taste art, to study it, to affirm its importance and raw life to the world.” From Here is just such an affirmation.

Heather Scott Partington is writer, teacher, and book critic. Her writing appears at The Los Angeles Times, Ploughshares’ Blog, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Las Vegas Weekly, Electric Literature, and The Rumpus. She holds an MFA in Fiction from UC Riverside’s Palm Desert Campus. Heather teaches high school English and lives in Elk Grove, California with her husband and two kids. Follow her @HeatherScottP. More from this author →