Caren Gussoff’s short stories map feminine experience of contemporary reality from the inside, and offer jolting rides through disturbed, damaged lives and minds. Her fictional worlds are fractured by emotional pain, criss-crossed by barely-healed scar tissue, gnarled and knotted by frustrated desires and thwarted ambitions. Her characters are partially traumatised by the realities they conflict with, partially wrecked by the people they’re condemned to mix with, partially stunned by their own failings, but wholly strangers to themselves, floundering through seas of words to try to make sense of who and what they are.
The narrator of ‘Unpretty’ typifies the Gussoff scenario: “When I was twelve years old, my sister offered me to a Frenchman for a kilo of coke”, the story opens, and things do not get better. Gussoff, a New Yorker with a novel, Homecoming, already published by Serpent’s Tail, critiques the brutality of a contemporary world-view that represents people as exchangeable commodities, that sees the worth of the individual solely in terms of price, and that encourages everyone to act out its own consumer fantasies on a daily basis. Characters seek self-assurance, self-reflexivity, but find only blankness:
When I was twelve, I felt capable of change. You could become anything you wanted. I knew this from television and novels in translation. Secretly, I savored the possibilities. I could be pretty. At thirty, I stare into my compact, blinking back exactly who I have always been.
Here the ‘I’ is fixed, condemned to its own identity, circumscribed by the inevitability of the mirror image. “Television” and “novels in translation” offer a code to crack, a series of tantalising opportunities that hammer home the impossibility of change. Gussoff summarises in such moments the trivial, violent existence of a dispossessed generation.
Sometimes her writing slips into the easy contemporary mode of the born postmodernist, the lessons of the generation of American writers of the sixties and seventies—Kathy Acker, John Barth, Don DeLillo, Thomas Pynchon—wholly assimilated into a kind of post-No Wave, post-Blank Generation blur of incompletely mediated sensation. In The Wave: A Novella, the longest piece here, this mode dominates in a kind of tour de force of contemporary misery, a gut-wrenching promenade through self-loathing and despair:
At twenty-two [Gussoff is very specific about ages], I dated a guy way out of my league. It lasted a total of two weeks, the last ten days out of courtesy. He was nice, and even nicer looking, although I can’t even remember his name. He was a photography assistant at Elite, and I still don’t know why we hooked up, how we hooked up, except that I had early-twenties low self-esteem masquerading as fuck-me feminism, and my withdrawn exterior worked this well.
This from a narrator who has already commented, like a delinquent Merleau-Ponty, on her “teenaged sense of the tenuous synchrony between the mind and the phenomenal world of perception”. The Wave offers a complex, shocking meditation on the kind of existential angst that, as this narrator knows, is proper to teenagers, but here spills over into adulthood with unpredictable, tragic consequences.
The narrative, told in three blocks, progresses away from the first person / past tense through second person to third person / present tense, a movement way from the self (which apparently existed in the past, but not here, not now) contradicting the ostensible journey of self-discovery that constitutes its theme. Self-discovery is, in Gussoff’s world, self-annihilation, and if The Wave mimics On The Road it’s only because it has to, because that’s the form (“television” and “novels in translation” as the only resources, again) that’s available, that enforces itself on the content.
The Wave opens with a quote from Virginia Woolf’s 1931 novel The Waves, a profound, high-Modernist experimental text. Gussoff’s writing experiments in its own way, offering its formal innovation alongside a willingness to leave unexplained both the motivation for the narrative’s denouement and its moment of mystical trickery, a sub-Gothic postmodern vampire joke. But Woolf permeates Gussoff’s writing in different ways, in the persistently unstable psychologies that she inhabits, and in the texture of her language, which is deft, subtle, highly woven.
Despite the overtly mordant tendency (one of the collection’s epigraphs is taken from a Smiths song, a warning to anyone in the know), she’s also, at times, very funny, although the humour is that of despair, of the laughter that accompanies dying (‘to die laughing’, as philosopher Simon Critchley puts it) and somehow ameliorates it. In The Wave, Olive, excited at finding Allison’s blog online, spills tea on the keyboard:
That keyboard never worked correctly after that, even after I pried off each letter and swabbed it with alcohol wipes. The A and the R would stick, making me seem like I was typing in pirate phonetics: ‘Aaaaaarrrrre you in the Aaarrrmy?’
In the collection’s final tale, ‘Love Story’, a romance is acted out through employment application procedures (interview, feedback, the lot), culminating in a “Job Description” of such painful accuracy the reader is left both laughing and cringing in self-knowledge.
These jokes, however, are writerly, to do with words, the forms and mechanics of written language, as if all we can safely do is play with words, because everything else we play with—people, things, ourselves—we destroy. Gussoff’s writing ultimately restricts itself to brief moments of humour in scrutinising a contemporary landscape strewn with the lives of American women who can see no escape, whose relation to their culture is one of mutual abandonment. As the narrator of ‘Astronaut’ succinctly puts it, in short, fractured sentences that sum up a short, fractured life:
I am falling, arms spread wide. I snap open my eyes before I can dream. When I wake up, I am alone. Outside, gravel under parking tires. I slip out of bed. I hold up my empty palms. On your knees, you are closer to the ground.
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