In Amie Barrodale’s first collection of short stories, You Are Having A Good Time, the men struggle with the tension between what they want and what they have. The women deal with what they have. They scramble to garner the attention of married men, get beat up by husbands, get manipulated into emotionally abusive relationships, clean houses, and eat Champagne sorbet when text messages and emails to said married men go unanswered.
Each of the stories deals, generally, with thirty-something Americans in bad relationships. Reading about them is like being a friend’s date to a dinner party among her close friends: Everyone sees the stranger in the room but continues the gossip about their lovers, mothers, and prescriptions as if the new arrival understood by default. No effort is made to show the stranger this unfamiliar social world. Ultimately this collection is about how a small slice of people—wealthy, creative types, some writers, some actors, some musicians—deal with one another. The customs and particularities are referenced, rather than described, in a tone that reads like a VICE column (where Barrodale is Fiction Editor and has written extensively) or an episode of Girls.
The title comes from the collection’s epigraph: “There is no such thing as communication. There are only two things. There is a successful miscommunication, and unsuccessful miscommunication. And when you have unsuccessful miscommunication, you are having a good time.” The quote is an excerpt from a longer meditation on love and relationships from the Bhutanese Buddhist leader Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche. He explains the nonexistence of communication: one party never knows the full extent of what the other party thinks and feels. Faced with such dense and confused circumstances, the characters in Barrodale’s stories find themselves hopeless and stuck, either resigned to passivity or enraged, but incapable of acting upon that furor. There is no transparency in human feeling.
These stories do little to clarify it. In “William Wei,” the first story in the collection and winner of the Paris Review’s Plimpton Prize, William and Koko strike up a relationship over the telephone that falls to pieces when they meet face-to-face. William narrates the story in a detached tone. Much of Barrodale’s prose reads like this: Narrators recount actions, while the senses get left behind. William relates his visit with Koko: “She was singing along with the television, but I stopped her before the next line. I mean I kissed her. It was a bit like kissing a doll, or a timid old lady… That can be very attractive.” Koko and William take drugs and sleep together, despite a clear lack of attraction or desire on her part. This circumstance recurs throughout the collection—the men want women to be something inanimate, a toy.
On occasion the women reach a breaking point. It comes when the men become either unavailable or egregious and violent. The women don’t provoke the rupture; they react. In “Night Report” Ema (the one who eats the Champagne sorbet) sends a lengthy iMessage to her lover before taking off for a meditation retreat, pining over her love for him. To her great dismay, the older man has an old-school cell phone and receives her message diced into 144-character pieces. At the retreat, she meets a writer named Sloane Newman, who has abandoned the written word for yoga. “Ema tried to tell the married man about the real Sloane Newman, but the cell phone cut out. It went dead and then it began playing a three-note error tone.” Her tears blossom into rage; she wants to “shoot that whole shrine room full of holes.” Ema’s anger seems to be misdirected toward the meditation retreat, a place she would not be were it not for the failed communications with the married man.
The arrogant and slimy Dr. Shepphard sleeps with both Debbie and Kitty—his patient and her mother—in “Frank Advice For Fat Women.” Kitty has hired him to help Debbie lose weight and she gets what she wants: “Debbie improved. She went from a size ten to a size four. She was still too big to borrow clothes from her mother, but she began to dress like a woman.” Their interactions quickly become a twisted comedy of errors. In one scene, the doctor manages simultaneous phone calls with Debbie and Kitty. Each woman expresses her desire for him as Dr. Shepphard plays operator. It comes to a head when he refuses to accept that Debbie loves him—chalking her emotions up to profound loneliness—in an office visit a few weeks later. She gets mad, storms out, and then Kitty shows up, calling him out for not answering her phone calls, and blaming his divorce on his being fat. He tries to flee, but Kitty won’t have it:
She punched him in the throat. He fell backward into the couch. Kitty must have taken self-defense classes. He was having trouble breathing. She gathered her handbag from his desk, brushed her hair with one hand.
She turned on a heel and strode out. As she was opening the door, he said, ‘You cunts.’
She turned her head slightly, but caught herself. He read the expression on her face. She was fascinated.
The rage that both Ema and Kitty express is satisfying, but Barrodale doesn’t let her characters venture past the tipping point. She sees the intersections between gender and power but restrains her female characters to subordinate roles. In the last sentence of “Frank Advice,” Dr. Sheppard reads to Kitty and prescribes how she feels. Barrodale is making fun of her characters to a certain degree, but it’s hard to tell whether the jokes are sincere mockeries or a calculated move to win the reader’s empathy.
The third story in the collection, “The Imp,” is written in the first person from the perspective of Tom, an unemployed writer who focuses on the faults that underscore his predicament. His wife is the object and subject of his discontent. He clings to a fantasy of “a wife,” a woman whose marriage would delineate the bounds of her personhood. But he lives with the untenable factual reality of marriage to a woman with a past and other relationships (ex-boyfriends, mothers, colleagues). This is the only story in the collection where Barrodale deals in fantasy, using a tone reminiscent of George Saunders in The Tenth of December. Strange things happen: a truck drives off the side of the road and the protagonists accelerate past, uncaring. The anxious male narrator accepts that a negative spirit haunts him after a spiritual guide (with four-figure fees) assures him that a female—“dirty and slimy like something that had been in the drain for decades”—who has attached herself to him is the cause of his negativity. He happily slips “into [his] role as a haunted possessed person,” who prefers “a ghost to jealousy.”
The absurdity clarifies the black comedy of the writing and makes a calculated mockery of its narrator. Elsewhere in the collection the humor is less clear. Barrodale intends You Are Having A Good Time to be ironic and comic. But the comedy is opaque, like the inside jokes at the hypothetical dinner party. The audience can only laugh if they identify.