Talk about staying power. Twenty years after its original release, Jincy Willett’s collection Jenny & the Jaws of Life (republished by Picador) continues to impress story lovers large and small. Even David Sedaris (When You Are Engulfed in Flames, Naked, Me Talk Pretty One Day) is onboard the Willett train, calling her book, “just the funniest collections of stories I’ve ever read—really funny and perfectly sad at the same time.”
A literary metropolis teeming with memorable characters, mayor Willett presides over the darkest comedians and gloomiest heroes in the same sentence, without the flashy writing gimmicks that beg for attention. Her smug honesty and literary candor expose the roughest alleys of the human condition, never sliding into the bear traps of devices, stunts, and clichés you so often find in collections.
In other words, readers won’t find the embedded convenience of modern fiction and character marionettes that usually haunt short stories. Instead, Willett’s characters roam through her fictional worlds completely and utterly free, which affords them the license to string together an organic narrative that is undeniably human. As she writes, ” ... real life just happens, whereas stories make sense. When you put real life in print, you show it up for the pointless mess it really is.”
Just read “Julie in the Funhouse”, a narrative by a grief stricken brother that has all the erotic complexity and dread as Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers, and visit the small Pennsylvanian graveyard where the melancholy mother Julie is now buried beside her husband, both slain by their detached children one uneventful evening, a shotgun from the parlor the murder weapon.
Oh, and stop off at the unemployment office where you can pick up a copy of the Good German’s resume, one appealing to the man upstairs for immortality as it curses and begs for his divine forgiveness in the same breath. Satire at its best, you’ll laugh just as you’re filled with the impeding doom that courses through the lifeblood of those men who recognize their own guilt.
Don’t forget a quick trip to the post office where you can thumb through “The Best of Betty”, letters written by an advice columnist who spirals downward into her cynicism as she scripts her own fan mail and responds to legitimate letters with a fanged cruelty that ultimately reveals her own lonely, cat lady, TV dinner existence.
Touring Willett’s hellish Shangri-La, pause at the mediocre state college and peak through the first floor apartment window of the philosophy professor who may still be curled under her bed, petrified being the victim of an embarrassing and horrific rape. The wounds healed, the rapist imprisoned, her marriage to an enthusiastic physics professor even stronger than before, months later she’s still seized by an abysmal impulse she herself calls foolish as her husband watches her sleeplessly squirm in bed, the blissful safety of suburbia all but an illusion now. “There’s the violation,” she says. “There’s the damage. There’s the tragedy.”
Let’s not forget about Jenny, the woman born clumsy who, living to a ripe old age in a harsh world where earthquakes are personal, never forgives the bully God for his unjust and seemingly senseless tendency to allow horrible disaster. That said, of course Jenny recognizes she’s no better off without him. Willett writes:
Jenny’s universe was not particularly hospitable, and the God of her infancy was not her loving friend. Friends don’t watch you in the bathroom and read your mind and kick over the magnificent towers you build with wooden blocks. God did these things to Jenny, not out of wise love, but simply because he had the power to do them. God was very much like Jenny, only bigger.
Truth be told, though riddled with remarkable insights into the human condition, Jenny & the Jaws of Life isn’t perfect. What book is? Because Willett’s characters are radically free and almost beyond her control, her stories can at times read more like character studies than narratives with fully developed plotlines. So too, the variety of her styles and vernaculars from story to story may jar readers. Just when you think you’ve gotten the hang of Willett’s flamboyant voice and commentary, she does a complete U-turn, switching from hyper-realism to an almost absurdist theme in only a matter of pages.
But her writing is elegant, her humor unbashful, her empathy unequivocal. Bursting from the seams of each story, Willett still manages a smooth prose that echoes the gothic voices of Joyce Carol Oates (My Sister, My Love, The Gravedigger’s Daughter) and Flannery O’Connor (A Good Man Is Hard to Find, Everything that Rises Must Converge). Shedding disguise after disguise, her characters disarm with a deadpan humor that ultimately reveals their own human frailty and loneliness within a pragmatic, uncompromising, indiscriminate, and inconsolable universe that startlingly resembles our own.
Overall, the great achievement of Willett’s collection is its unflinching stare into the cold-shouldered, unmerciful void of human experience. As one of her characters confesses on an airplane, “I’m tempted, for one sickening minute, to give it significance. To make sense of the way my sister died ... Too bad for the storytellers. Too bad for the sense makers, the apologists, that nothing, then or ever, nothing was inevitable. It’s just too bad.”
To any avid reader of neo-gothic fiction, just try to stop reading Jenny & the Jaws of Life, the reprinted literary gem that the Chicago Tribune still calls, “... a triumphant collection,” and Esquire dubs, “exquisite ... a great, darkly comic collection.” Remember, even Sedaris wants to plug this praiseworthy republication 20 years after leafing through its pages as a student in the Chicago Public Library, now openly admitting that he’s ” ... prepared to wear a sandwich board for this book.”
Think about them apples next time you’re browsing the aisles of your local bookstore.
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