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.”