Books

The Intimate Politics of the Female Self in Danielle Lazarin’s 'Back Talk'

The girls and women in Danielle Lazarin's debut short story collection deal with their desires, needs, and fears with vulnerability, suppressed anger, self-awareness, and self-denial.

Back Talk
Danielle Lazarin

Penguin

Feb 2018

Other

Our desires are driven as much by our needs as our fears. And female desire — of which much has been written and much of it badly or incorrectly — is often still about suppressed needs and unarticulated fears. Danielle Lazarin's debut short story collection, Back Talk, deals with just such desires, needs, and fears with a cast of girls and women at various stages of their lives. While the desires are varied, ranging from needs for intimacy to independence, the fear that over-rides all other fears is that of loss. This makes their conflicts deeply personal and their choices, though they do affect others, are mostly like self-inflicted, long-lasting wounds.

The first of the two recurring themes across the collection has to do with fractured families — whether due to death or separation/divorce. The protagonists of these six stories — 'Appetite'; 'Spider Legs'; 'Landscape No. 27', 'Hide and Seek', 'Dinosaurs'; 'Second-chance Family' — range from schoolgirls to married mothers. All are trying to find their places both within those broken families and the larger world.

The second recurring theme is about splintered relationships. There are more stories here: 'Appetite'; 'Floor Plans'; 'Weighed and Measured'; 'American Men in Paris I Did Not Love'; 'Window Guards'; 'Landscape No. 27'; 'Hide and Seek'; 'Back Talk'; 'Lover's Lookout'; 'Dinosaurs'; 'Gone'; 'Red Light, Green Light'; 'Second-chance Family'. With these — whether with a boy/man, or a close girlfriend, or a parent — the protagonists are trying to figure out why and what they truly want instead.

With both sets of stories, the girls/women become painfully aware of what the world has to offer them versus what they deserve or desire, even as they are learning how to manage their own responses to those offerings. The individual realizations of their own vulnerabilities and limitations come to them progressively, at times in nuanced, self-conscious ways, other times like a hammer that shatters them from the inside, sometimes like a curtain that shuts off some part of themselves, and sometimes as an iceberg that numbs the soul.

Some of the writing does, rightly, remind one of Alice Munro's work, particularly due to the focus on the lives of girls and women. But mostly, it's strikingly reminiscent of Melissa Bank's The Girl's Guide to Hunting and Fishing from almost 20 years ago. The latter is a linked short story collection of a coming-of-age that starts with a 14-year-old girl whose world-weary and eloquent wisdom beyond her years is a precursor to that of almost all the protagonists here.

The most arresting stories are those centering on the pre-adults, who are still discovering what desire, need, and fear mean. Lazarin's descriptions of their early relationships are unfolded so delicately and capture much of what we often try to forget or avoid as adults. In an interview, Lazarin described her views about the differences between young and adult friendships:

With younger girls, friendships are everything, the first real bonds we make outside of the family unit. They're the first choices we make in love, how we learn to show love to people who don't assume they already have it, and tests of what we will take in relationships. Our adolescent friendships are such great teachers. They were certainly my first heartbreaks, more so than boys. Adult friendships arise from different needs: commiseration in a career or parenthood or a city that isn't home. Robin and Juliet in "Floorplans" have this brief and intense friendship that is very intimate but is also hinged on the fact that they're choosing to help one another through a strange moment in their lives, and that the moment will end for them both. They both seem okay with that, with that immediate need and the understanding that it will end.

At a time when almost all new works of fiction, regardless of genre, are being presented as somehow related to the #MeToo movement, it's inevitable that some blurbs and reviews have tried to do the same with this collection. However, that equation does not stand so well here and does a disservice to works that do indeed extend the #MeToo conversation across a larger political canvas. Lazarin's stories are more about an intimate politics of the female self. This does not make them less significant, of course. To give careful shape and language to the many unspoken wants and concerns we women tend to hold tight within ourselves out of habit or fear is not easy by any measure. And, oftentimes, fiction can lay bare such truths like no other form of writing. Lazarin's women are recognizable in both their suppressed anger and their self-denial; women who, even as they analyze themselves and their emotions with keen insight, do not take any big or sudden risks that might change the inevitability of their loss or the pain of it.

The use of a highly pared-down prose, devoid of sentimentality, drives all of the above home with even more force. It is precisely honed right down to the individual sentence level. Some examples:

The way the women are together is its own foreign country; they move around each other like extensions of a single body, their voices and laughter entangled.
She imagines the relief of not wanting him anymore, the end of the pain of wanting pleasure.
I was annoyed by the collective failure of your imaginations, by your inability to follow me into the hard place I was going with anything other than an offer to fuck me anyway.
Mirabelle came by the house later that night with her mother, who sat with mine at the kitchen table, drinking beer, sun-kissed and loud, as if they were the teenagers. I didn't understand then how they could love each other so unconditionally, how they didn't seem to want or need anyone else, didn't need a little breathing room.
"Hope," he says, part question, part apology. No one ever knows how to say my name right when they are disappointing me.

All that said, here are a few things that might have made this a stronger collection. These are not to put off a potential reader as there is much to admire here.

First, given that many of the stories are based in New York City and Paris, it's a shame that a more diverse supporting cast of characters was not included. It makes the heteronormative and mostly white protagonists seem to be living in their elite, educated, privileged filter-bubble without any acknowledgement or need for the world beyond. This can make their self-awareness seem like self-indulgent navel-gazing sometimes, no matter how clear-eyed and unflinching the gaze might be.

Second, the shorter, flash stories do not work as well as and with the rest. As standalone pieces, they might do very well but, as part of this collection, they make it uneven and even saggy.

And finally, there are several occasions where the stories slip into descriptions of everyday mundanities. Yes, life is made up of these more than we might like. But, in a short story, where every detail, image, and thought counts to heighten the reader's sensitivities, these can easily render a bluntness and blandness instead of a sharpness and subtlety.

In the end, though, this is a noteworthy debut collection for two reasons. It showcases a writer with much promise; one who is not afraid to give voice to facets of womanhood that our socio-cultural conditioning, for both men and women, teaches us to avoid or ignore. And, by giving us an honest, unabashed language for these facets, it also enables us to reconsider the arcs of our own lives and those of other women around us with a closer scrutiny.

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