Confessions of a Falling Woman by Debra Dean

Dean clearly loves to craft sentences, and she does it very well -- her writing is painterly, little details accentuated to draw the reader into the story.

Confessions of a Falling Woman

Publisher: Harper Perennial
Subtitle: And Other Stories
Author: Debra Dean
Price: $13.95
Length: 256
Formats: Paperback
ISBN: 0060825324
US publication date: 2008-02

The short story gets short shrift in the literary world. Novels get all the press, just as colossal canvases get the attention at galleries, yet as the adage goes, size isn't everything. In some cases, epic novels are not long because they require that much space to contain their great ideas, but because the author is enamored with their own voice. Metaphorically, an entree isn't more delicious than an appetizer simply because it's a larger portion of food. An exceptional short story provides the same amount of satisfaction as a novel, it simply reaches that destination by a less circuitous route.

My favorite short story writers tend to be short story writers by trade, not by turn. I don't begrudge a novelist making a foray into shorter pieces, but many novelist's short stories seem to be a testing ground, as if these were the children who couldn't graduate to Novel school, who lacked the substance to join their parent's legitimate oeuvre of progeny. Knowing that Debra Dean had established herself in the literary world with a novel, The Madonnas of Leningrad, I was leery of a short story collection, as such offers sometimes read like a compendium of incomplete ideas, compiled to fulfill a contractual obligation. (Her decision to end the book with a 100+ page novella underscored my suspicion.)

My concerns were allayed by the first story in Confessions of a Falling Woman, “What the Left Hand is Saying”, an engaging tale of a stranger who ingratiates himself with a variety of tenants in an apartment building and unites them as a happy community before moving on with an unexpected method of goodbye. By the end of the story, I was hooked.

Dean clearly loves to craft sentences, and she does it very well -- her writing isn't cinematic (an adjective I often hear for modern writers who grew up with less James Joyce and more James Bond) but painterly, little details accentuated to draw the reader into the story. Here's a representative sample from “Another Little Piece”:

They stopped at a traffic signal and waited for a ridiculously long time, the only car at the intersection, while the ghosts of daytime traffic were ushered through ... the light changed, and they drove through downtown. At night, it looked like a scene from a science fiction movie, silent and swept clean of humanity. The wide streets were deserted, traffic signals washing the empty pavement green, then yellow, then red.

She is also very crafty with her approach to point of view. Along with traditional first-person narratives that explore motivations and third-person tellings that offer voyeuristic images of her characters' lives, she includes a monologue from a psychiatrist's couch, the heroine responding to questions we never hear (“The Bodhisattva”) and a letter from an ex-spouse, long separated after the death of their child (“Confessions of a Falling Woman”). Dean relies on her experiences as a stage actress to fuel her plot lines ("write what you know", the writer mags assure), though her stories take place off-the-clock, so despite an occasionally common thread, the real action takes place in living rooms and motel rooms and bars, locales where occupations fall away and personalities take center stage.

One caveat about her writing style is that her appreciation for picturesque phrases can sometimes be a distraction: Within the six pages that make up “The Afterlife of Lyle”, she attaches adjectives to the sky every time it makes a fleeting appearance in the story:

“Lyle could see through the panes, a bruised gray sky”

“watching a gull wheel and scream through a dishwater sky”

“shrouded in the perpetual drizzle of February”

”... looked out at the bay and the sky, a single gray curtain of water”

But that's a minor complaint, especially since the verbose sky offenses take place in the least interesting story in the collection: When her plots are thick, her words are nestled in securely; when they're thin, the words stand out nakedly. Fortunately, most of her plots engaged me, so her descriptions were both contributory and delicious.

Dean is like good host at a dinner party, regaling with an enthusiasm that entertains her guests. Short stories may seem like literary appetizers, but with Confessions of a Falling Woman, the assortment of flavors and consistency of preparation had me leaving the table satisfied.


Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less

Winner of the 2017 Ameripolitan Music Award for Best Rockabilly Female stakes her claim with her band on accomplished new set.

Lara Hope & The Ark-Tones

Love You To Life

Label: Self-released
Release Date: 2017-08-11

Lara Hope and her band of roots rockin' country and rockabilly rabble rousers in the Ark-Tones have been the not so best kept secret of the Hudson Valley, New York music scene for awhile now.

Keep reading... Show less

To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.