Tarnished, Shiny Exteriors: Kate Braverman’s A Good Day for Seppuku
Kate Braverman’s latest story collection, A Good Day For Seppuku, out now from City Lights, offers eight precisely written stories examining the commonplace struggles of modern upper-middle class life. Divorce, substance abuse, and social expectation plagues an assorted cast with narratives that develop slowly, in careful and considerate ways that often uncover their sadness or loneliness.
The characters populating these stories are wealthy and privileged. They discuss plastic surgery like it’s general medicine, have designed custom-built homes with architects, and are friends with the kind of people who “own whole villages, including dwellings, artifacts, crops, livestock and people.” This privilege is not meant to reduce the adversity they face. They, like all of us, still have emotions and feelings. A young girl choosing between which of her wealthy parents to live with is still choosing between parents. Braverman attempts to find the humanizing faults of the wealthy. The crises they face might feel higher order because they aren’t burdened by poverty, but in a way, this places a greater burden on the writer to generate sympathy. Braverman is largely successful in inducing this sympathy by carefully crafting dynamic characters.
There is, too, an ordinariness to these individuals. They aren’t superheroes or savants. They are housewives and school children, farmers and professors. That mundanity helps ground them despite their social class and extraordinary privilege.
A strength of the collection is Braverman’s transportive descriptions. She crafts detailed scenes anchoring us to the place. This vividness of scene emerges throughout the collection providing a seemingly tangible moment to connect us. Take for instance, this setting in “What the Lilies Know”:
Gallup is a few disappointing blocks of pawnshops and liquor stores that seem to be lingering posthumously. A community center with windows broken, and a tennis court with the pavement ripped. The net has been hacked up with knives. She imagines playing on the court, bits of glass making her footing slippery. She could fall, sprain an ankle, get cut.
These scenes Braverman paints often feel like long-held memories. Like the prose, they are precise. While the characters do wander through the occasionally downtrodden neighborhood, they don’t engage these places in a tangible way. The setting is a backdrop. And maybe that’s the point; for the privileged, a pawnshop doesn’t inspire the same emotional response as someone who relies on one to pay rent. They are, like the reader, merely observing these places.
The precision of the prose shows fine and meticulous editing. The prose lacks excess even in the depths of an expressive scene. It feels as though Braverman allows no room for mistakes in her language. The effect can feel dry, but interspersing various paces imparts some energy. She often employs a staccato rhythm to speed things up, shooting a blast of energy into the text, such as in the story “Feeding in a Famine”:
These children wear the syllables of characters from ports and capitals where they will never go. Paris, Brittany, Austin, Kingston and Wellington, Chelsea. Three children with features Megan cannot remember. They are generic, sturdy, already solid and fleshy, a good harvest. She couldn’t pick them out of a line up.
Or, similarly, in “Women of the Ports”:
She realizes Clarissa has already moved on. The conference is over. The documents will be studied. Further discussions to be scheduled. My people will calendar with yours. We’ll synchronize by palm pilot.
These moments infuse the text with intensity between the prose that plays out more slowly. Keep reading, it demands, even throughout the denser stories.
The highlight of the collection is “Cocktail Hour,” holding up the center of the book like a giant tentpole. As stories go, it hits all the best notes. The tone is playful, almost as if Braverman understands she’s been depressing us for a while and decided to offer something a bit more upbeat. Bernie should be unlikeable, but Braverman paints him in a way where we see his sadness, and as a result we sympathize with him. He’s funny, and so we forgive him his foibles. But that humor, too, is good for the narrative, and it helps add levity for an otherwise heavy situation. Other stories hint at a wry humor, but “Cocktail Hour” dares us to actually laugh.
Of all the stories, “Cocktail Hour” benefits from a steadily intensifying progression of energy. Just as we think we’ve hit the crescendo, we get another hit. Braverman doles out snippets of information through Chloe, Bernie’s wife. But as these new pieces spill out, we see the broader picture of their marriage and their life. She calls their marriage a performance art piece, having the effect of perfectly describing their acting out domesticity but dialing up the sympathy for a man just realizing his happiness came at the cost of his wife’s. The whole story is doled out piece by piece, and each time new information is dangled in front of us the drama increases.
The beauty of “Cocktail Hour,” though, is that it raises the issue of female emotional labor and masculine narcissism. Bernie arrives home early to find his wife’s car in the driveway. He’s had a bad day, and so is pleased she is there to comfort him. He would have called her home to his side had she been out, because in his mind, his emotional needs come first. He’s out of luck in a way. She’s already home, but packing up her things ready to leave him. Even as she tells him she wants a divorce, he’s more concerned with how it impacts him.
Women are central to the dramas playing out in Braverman’s collection. For many of these women, the drama unfolds around determining who they are in the world. In “O’Hare,” the question confronting the narrator is a choice between which parent she will live with. At the heart of this story is a girl figuring out who she wants to be. The choice is between living with her mother, in Beverly Hills where she has a “Gucci pink closet” and hangs with Paul Simon and Madonna, or in Pittsburgh with her father. The decision isn’t just about location, but identity. At thirteen, she’s on the precipice of adulthood and this choice will determine the near-term outcome.
Or, for instance, the women populating the story “Feeding in a Famine” present contrasting roles. The protagonist, Megan, returns to her family’s farm each year feeling “like a journalist sent to cover a catastrophe.” Smart and educated, Megan has left and built a life away from her hometown and acknowledges the limits of the place. And yet each year she returns, even after a friend offers her an alternative vacation. At the farm, she observes her mother and sister, who have a very different identity than she does. Martha “considers it absurd that a woman should work,” and Megan’s mother conducts performative domestic work only when her husband is around to watch her. For these women, their role is limited to domestic spheres, and Megan struggles when those expectations are directed towards her. Her annual return home is a way of working through these questions of duty and responsibility. Megan feels that she “spends much of her life picking out shards like a woman stumbling from a car crash.” Returning home serves as a reminder of the alternative to her life, and ultimately she realizes some women must “change their names and destinies.”
With A Good Day for Seppuku, Braverman has written a collection of intense images and exacting language. She’s sliced through privileged suburbia to show us a delicious cross-section of the troubles of the elites, and shows how even with money, many women end up struggling to find their own place in the world. The melancholy of these well-off characters is a reminder that often even the shiniest exteriors are tarnished.