A Life of False Positives: Jac Jemc's 'False Bingo'

The stories in Jac Jemc's False Bingo are wound tight, propelling the reader to ambiguous and nerve-wracking ends.

False Bingo
Jac Jemc

Farrar, Straus & Giroux

October 2019


In "Bulls-Eye", one of the stories in Jac Jemc's collection False Bingo, a bingo player—"a young woman, An amateur", according to our protagonist, Phyllis—makes a false call. The young woman's card shows a regular bingo, when the winning conditions required a "postage stamp" bingo (four numbers forming a square in the corner of the card) (94).

The false bingo fills Phyllis, a bingo devotée, with a smug sense of satisfaction, as she thinks about the pains she has taken to avoid such an embarrassment. But Phyllis, Jemc tells us, "was equally embarrassed to call bingo when it was a legitimate winner; a sadness accompanied the motion of ending a particular game, a sense of letting the rest of the group down, taking away the private hope of the others in the room to bask in her own singular success […]" (95).

Not wanting the game to end. That's the impulse that Jemc probes over the course of False Bingo's 20 stories, many of which are filled with scenes of games and other gamified group activities: Scrabble, bingo, videogames, yoga. It's an impulse that's as universal as it is perverse, loaded with narcissism and unfounded expectations. In the penultimate story, "Trivial Pursuit", even a married couple's attempts to make friends start to take on the anxious energy of a game, with each boring dinner party turning into an exercise in testing the limits of the couple's introversion, no clear "win" ever in sight.

Jemc is a gifted writer of a certain kind of literary suspense. The stories in False Bingo are wound tight, propelling the reader to ambiguous and nerve-wracking ends. Electronic devices shape the stories' world -- one that is, like ours, saturated with alerts, ringers, push notifications—with a sense of intrusion into one's personal space and finally, into one's psyche. There's a lot of Shirley Jackson in these stories.

For Jackson, writing in the first half of the 20th century, the intruder was sometimes quite literally a ghost, and usually a manifestation of the power relations of her time. Those relations persist in False Bingo, as well. In "Don't Let's", a woman escapes an abusive relationship only to fear that she is being pursued by a "boo hag" in the southern cottage where she has taken refuge. But the "spirit" haunting Jemc's stories is also the one emanating from our phones, that diffuse and mysterious energy telling us what it thinks we want to know.

Jemc's characters, often female, testify to a very specific embodied experience of being a woman in certain spaces. In "Maulawiyah", protagonist Raila finds herself trapped between her desire to care for herself and her compulsion to keep others happy, after she accidentally befriends a toxic woman at her yoga retreat. At the end of the story, she's afraid to answer her phone, not sure if it's her partner calling or the toxic friend.

While in "Hunt and Catch", Emily becomes convinced she is being followed by a man in a truck. Rather than a reassurance, the phone in her hand, primed to dial 911, becomes a potential source of further worry and embarrassment. She dreads calling 911 unnecessarily, of calling a "false bingo".

The case of the "false bingo" is a powerful emblem for the way we live now. Reading the book, I was reminded of how often I've looked at the news in the past few years, waiting for the most terrible revelation. We are all primed for the worst at all times, though we hesitate to call it the "worst".

At the same time, we are dying for the worst to hurry up and get here, for the game to end one way or another. And when it does, we want to be the first to name it and set it all in motion again. "Yeah, this is a big one but not the big one, and besides ...," as Jemc writes at the end of "Pastoral", a rewriting of Virgil's Eclogues as a glimpse into an adult film star's day-to-day: "You have been waiting for the threat. That is where you are wrong."





The Top 20 Punk Protest Songs for July 4th

As punk music history verifies, American citizenry are not all shiny, happy people. These 20 songs reflect the other side of patriotism -- free speech brandished by the brave and uncouth.


90 Years on 'Olivia' Remains a Classic of Lesbian Literature

It's good that we have our happy LGBTQ stories today, but it's also important to appreciate and understand the daunting depths of feeling that a love repressed can produce. In Dorothy Strachey's case, it produced the masterful Olivia.


Indie Rocker Alpha Cat Presents 'Live at Vox Pop' (album stream)

A raw live set from Brooklyn in the summer of 2005 found Alpha Cat returning to the stage after personal tumult. Sales benefit organizations seeking to end discrimination toward those seeking help with mental health issues.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

‘The Avengers’ Offer a Lesson for Our Time of COVID-19

Whereas the heroes in Avengers: Endgame stew for five years, our grief has barely taken us to the after-credit sequence. Someone page Captain Marvel, please.


Between the Grooves of Nirvana's 'Nevermind'

Our writers undertake a track-by-track analysis of the most celebrated album of the 1990s: Nirvana's Nevermind. From the surprise hit that brought grunge to the masses, to the hidden cacophonous noise-fest that may not even be on your copy of the record, it's all here.


Deeper Graves Arrives via 'Open Roads' (album stream)

Chrome Waves, ex-Nachtmystium man Jeff Wilson offers up solo debut, Open Roads, featuring dark and remarkable sounds in tune with Sisters of Mercy and Bauhaus.

Featured: Top of Home Page

The 50 Best Albums of 2020 So Far

Even in the coronavirus-shortened record release schedule of 2020, the year has offered a mountainous feast of sublime music. The 50 best albums of 2020 so far are an eclectic and increasingly "woke" bunch.


First Tragedy, Then Farce, Then What?

Riffing off Marx's riff on Hegel on history, art historian and critic Hal Foster contemplates political culture and cultural politics in the age of Donald Trump in What Comes After Farce?


HAIM Create Their Best Album with 'Women in Music Pt. III'

On Women in Music Pt. III, HAIM are done pretending and ready to be themselves. By learning to embrace the power in their weakest points, the group have created their best work to date.


Amnesia Scanner's 'Tearless' Aesthetically Maps the Failing Anthropocene

Amnesia Scanner's Tearless aesthetically maps the failing Anthropocene through its globally connected features and experimental mesh of deconstructed club, reggaeton, and metalcore.


How Lasting Is the Legacy of the Live 8 Charity Concert?

A voyage to the bottom of a T-shirt drawer prompts a look back at a major event in the history of celebrity charity concerts, 2005's Live 8, Philadelphia.


Jessie Ware Embraces Her Club Culture Roots on Rapturous 'What's Your Pleasure?'

British diva Jessie Ware cooks up a glittery collection of hedonistic disco tracks and delivers one of the year's best records with What's Your Pleasure.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.