Deb Olin Unferth has a reputation as a “writer’s writer”, one of those almost nonsensical phrases that needs unpacking. Sometimes it’s just a euphemism for “good, but not popular. A deeper meaning for the phrase, pertinent to Unferth, could be “excellent in unobvious ways.”
Unferth’s stories refuse to call attention to themselves in any of the easier ways we’ve come to expect; high concept subjects, metafictional trickery, newsworthy themes. In fact, the stories of Unferth’s new collection, Wait Till You See Me Dance, vary so wildly in subject and form that it’s not always easy to find the thread that connects them. They’re usually funny, although some are so bleak as to catch the reader off guard. They’re often based on clever concepts, although that’s never their point and some find inspiration in the mundane. The voice is mostly consistent, if hard to pin down in a word or two—it’s something like the exasperated voice of a former dreamer now loaded down with responsibility, but who’s counting the days until she lights out for the territories again.
Yet the one facet that best unites these stories is something that feels as much a matter of personal philosophy as a writing style. Unferth is a master of misdirection, leading the reader in one way, only to pull the rug out by radically shifting the perspective of the characters, the reader, or both. It can feel disorienting in the moment, but it’s never in the service of mere trickery or shock, but rather of empathy. Expertly, Unferth constructs situations whose strangeness and intensity robs her characters of rational thought, yet she forces her readers to see these moments for what they are, petty and trivial moments in lives often all too short and painful.
In “Stay Where You Are”, two white Westerners are unwittingly abducted in Central America by an insurgent who soon learns his fellow fighters have left camp without him. In too many narratives, the insurgent would be simply a device, to give a compelling story to the Westerners, but Unferth complicates this throughout by giving the insurgent his own sympathetic perspective. But Unferth isn’t done yet. After immersing the reader in the immediacy of the potentially violent moment, she expands the perspective to encompass thoughts from years later, revealing that this dangerous mistake served as an inflection point in the lives of all involved.
A similar trick is afoot in “The First Full Thought of Her Life”, which depicts the distasteful subject of a shooter looking down a rifle barrel at a random little girl on an outing with her exhausted parents. Unferth’s insight is to see this terrible act of violence as a communication, however vile, between the shooter and society at large, using the innocent girl as a symbol. While a real shooter may be isolated enough in his perspective to squash any qualms, Unferth doesn’t allow her character this luxury. Instead, her narration skitters around the scene, in and out of different minds, even birds; “Oh, the inaccessible inner lives all around us (thought some birds going by above), the lives we can’t imagine.”
Without ever coming face to face, the shooter is soon in conversation with the girl’s indignant mother. Dexterously, Unferth unspools the family’s entire history leading to this point, belying the shooter’s arrogant assumption that the family encapsulates society’s ills. The mother lets loose a withering attack on the shooter’s plan, less for being immoral than for being crass; “She herself was too busy managing this striving and grief to take an afternoon out and wander the area with a weapon. Did he think she’d never looked around and thought, What a bunch of assholes. I’d like to take them all out? That is a particularly unoriginal thought… She’d think it right now if she took the time to look around, but she wouldn’t, because she was busy, unlike Stupid over here.”
Wait Till You See Me Dance consists of two kinds of stories, longer stories of ten- to 20-pages and very short stories of a page or two. The very short stories are a delight to read one after the other, reminiscent of a Lydia Davis interested less in semantics than in emotional absurdities. But even in extremely limited space, Unferth is still able to shake the reader’s equilibrium by playing with perspective.
“The Walk” is under two pages long, simply describing a family outing that none enjoy—the dog is too hot, the baby is crying, Mom and Dad are tired. Unferth channels exasperation like no other, and the story is funny, casual, and feels on its way to a pleasant conclusion when the last paragraph opens with “The older child was the only one having any fun… she was so used to her younger sister’s cries that she didn’t hear them.” At this point, there are only 50 words remaining, yet in that short time, Unferth shatters the reader with a parenthetical revealing that the ability to ignore her family’s squabbling would “later in life would be seen as a defect—‘lack of empathy’ people would say.” With just a few words, Unferth completely reorients the meaning of her story, invoking a future of difficult adaptation that almost feels like a plea to the parents of the story to enjoy this moment while it lasts.
Despite her stylistic gifts as a writer, impressions of Unferth are more easily expressed in personal qualities. Her characters rarely if ever behave well, but she treats them with unflagging generosity and understanding. Each of her stories serves as a reminder that even at our smallest and pettiest, we all have our reasons. Wait Till You See Me Dance is a resounding call for empathy and it doesn’t hurt that it’s clever and hilarious as well.
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