In the Spirit of 'What He's Poised to Do', An Open Letter to Ben Greenman

by Zachary Houle

12 August 2010

Dear Mr. Ben Greenman: I want to run out onto the balcony of my apartment and yell from there how snazzerific, how terrificadelic, how übertastic this book is to the people gathered below.
Ben Greenman (photographer unknown) 
cover art

What He’s Poised to Do

Ben Greenman

(Harper Perennial)
US: Jun 2010

Dear Mr. Ben Greenman:

I’m taking the unusual step of penning a book review in the form of a letter. There’s an obvious reason for doing this, as your latest collection of short stories, What He’s Poised to Do, is an epistolary project, as most of the stories rounded up here are about writing letters or come in the form of a letter. I find this to be a compelling tact, as most of us these days are busy typing e-mails or, worse yet, text messages to each other, and the art of a well-crafted letter – be it a love letter, a postcard from the edge or otherwise – seems to have gone the way of the dodo bird. Rest assured, though, despite the quaintness of your collection, this missive is in the form of a fan letter as I, more or less, have little that is negative to say about your work.

Since this is an open letter, meaning that anyone can read it, I suppose I should give a little background to the genesis of this project. Five of the stories collected here (there are 14 in total) were originally published in 2008 in a collection called Correspondences, which was a handcrafted letterpress package that brought together six stories along with a seventh printed on an intricate folding, accordion-style box, making it as much of an art object as it was a bringing together of thematically-linked pieces. Correspondences was published by the boutique imprint Hotel St. George Press, which also had a hand in the design of What He’s Poised to Do, in a private, limited edition of just 250 copies. (According to a recent review of What He’s Poised to Do on the Bookslut website, some copies of that package are still floating around – to which I would suggest that those who have a fetish for short fiction might want to snap up as I believe that they’re going to be worth serious coin someday.)

You aren’t new to the world of letters, of course (and I mean that in the most alphabetical sense, not necessarily the kind you type, fold neatly into an envelope, and send off in the mail). You are the author of a novel, Please Step Back, as well as three other short story collections, not counting Correspondences. You are an editor at The New Yorker, which would obviously signal to just about anyone that you have writing chops of considerable merit. What’s more, you seem to have acquired a wealth of admirers who are leading literary lights in the book world. The blurbs on What He’s Poised to Do are collected from such luminaries as Dave Eggers, Daniel Handler, Jonathan Ames and even Rhett Miller, lead singer of The Old 97’s.

There’s perhaps a reason why so many writers seem to admire your storytelling. It’s simply this: you have a style that’s unmistakably your own, but one that recalls authors from both kitchen-sink realist fiction (I would say Raymond Carver, though I haven’t read any of his work personally – which I guess I’ll have to rectify) and the slipstream world (some of your material comes off as being Jonathan Lethem-lite). The stories in this collection range from being situated in a historical place and time, such Havana in the ‘40s or North Africa in the 1850s, to ones that are positioned in the fantastic, such as Lunar City on Earth’s moon, or the made-up Australindia (which is what you’d get if Australia and India were two nations side-by-side).

In essence, your writing is kind of like what you would get if you put diverse elements into a blender and hit “puree”. The style is sometimes even playful, even pun-like, as this example from the story “Seventeen Different Ways to Get a Load of That”, in which one of your young characters tries to come up with new names for the lunar settlement she lives in, illustrates:

Jill, twelve, wanted a name that made her laugh: “Moonesota,” she said, or “Moontana,” or “Moonte Carlo.” My mother and I indulged her names with weak smiles and encouraging nods. My father loved them. He was constantly asking Jill to think of new ones or, better yet, to make a list of all the ones she had thought of to date. One day he came home from work, and she rushed at him with open arms. “Daddy,” she said. “I thought of three more today: Vermoont! Green Cheese City! Moonesota!” She was beginning to repeat herself, but normally that would have made no difference to my father.

It bears mentioning that you rarely repeat yourself over the course of 14 stories. At the heart, these stories are about the relationships between women and men, whether it be husband-wife, boyfriend-girlfriend, lover and mistress, father and daughter, and even mother and son. One of the best stories published here, “Against Samantha”, contains fragments of letters written by the mother of the protagonist’s fiancé, only that we discover the protagonist might have developed a hankering for the mom! (Paging Mrs. Robinson.)

Being a collection of short stories, there are bound to be a couple of clunkers. However, I’m happy to say that there are only a couple, and they are (perhaps wisely) buried in the book’s mid-section. I wasn’t very fond of “From the Front”, which is a letter sent by a 19th-century weapons inventor to his young daughter, as it seemed to deviate a bit from the rest of the stories in the batch by examining a rivalry between the protagonist and one of his colleagues, and had little to say of the nature of relationships between men and (grown) women.

I also didn’t care for “Down a Pound”, in which one of the characters continuously weighs himself much to the chagrin of his girlfriend, even though I must admit, in kindred spirit, that I’m currently enrolled in WeightWatchers to lose a bit of the pudge I’ve developed from drinking too much beer. (I’ve recently lost four-and-a-half pounds in two weeks, in case you’re wondering.) The story literally and figuratively goes off the road without making much of a point, and seemingly has nothing to do with its central conceit.

However, much of the material in this collection is first-rate. My personal favorite might just be “The Govindan Ananthanarayanan Academy for Moral and Ethical Practice and the Treatment of Sadness Resulting from the Misapplication of the Above”, if only for that title alone! (Talk about audacious, if not a wicked sense of humor.) I really enjoyed “Hope” as well, which chronicles the relationships a Cuban man has with other women, even though he is still penning pseudo-love letters to a woman he earlier had a tryst with and subsequently never saw again. There’s a great section of repetition in there that made me burst out with guffaws, and it went:

Tomas passed through a period of extreme exhaustion, though he was a still a young man. “I am passing through a period of extreme exhaustion, though I am still a young man,” he wrote to Rodriquez.

I guess a thread is forming here. Even though many of these stores are tinged with sadness, longing, regret and compulsion, there’s a real sense of sardonic wit that permeates these stories, which prohibits them from lapsing into all-out melodrama. Mr. Greenman, you are a funny guy, and it really shows in your prose. I would imagine that you would be a great conversationalist, a good person to have a pint or two with on a patio somewhere, and that makes me glad to be recommending these pieces – as there’s few things worse than lauding lavish praise upon someone who is churlish.

In fact, these stories are, on the whole, so playfully inventive and they so accurately encapsulate the gulf that exists in male-female interaction, that I want to run out onto the balcony of my apartment and yell from there how snazzerific, how terrificadelic, how übertastic this book is to the people gathered below. Really, I savoured these stories, and vacillated between wanting to put the book down after each one so I could let them linger in my mind and wanting to read a whole bunch in one sitting. (Which I managed to do today in the coffee shop just around the corner of my apartment building.)

In short, What He’s Poised to Do is simply outstanding, if not stunning, and one of the best books I’ve read in ages. Though the year might be only at mid-point I can confidentially say that this collection will likely end up on many “best of 2010” lists. You’re a talented writer Mr. Greenman, and I’m confident that with this book, you’ll go places – if not to the bestseller’s list (though you should) – perhaps better, to where you’re considered a literary master of the short form. I eagerly await the arrival of your next missive.

Sincerely yours,

Zachary Houle

What He’s Poised to Do



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