'Things to Do When You're Goth in the Country...' Will Pull Some Clever Twists on You
Chavisa Woods' characters lean on observation but shy away from judgment, leaving her readers to apply their own values to the happenings in the stories.
Things to Do When You're Goth in the Country & Other StoriesPublisher: Seven Stories
Author: Chavisa Woods
Length: 224 pages
Publication date: 2017-06
Chavisa Woods covers a multitude of different topics throughout the stories that comprise Things to Do When You're Goth in the Country, but her stories all share a very singular commonality: Woods' tone. The tone of all of these stories is world-weary but not jaded, deadpan but not cynical. Whether she's seeing the world through the eyes of a young teenager or a nervous senior citizen, there comes through this sense that none of these characters harbor any illusions that what they are doing matters in any cosmic sense. These are people with small problems in small towns, finding drama, if not necessarily significance, in their lives.
This is not to say that these characters' lives are necessarily normal; only that Woods' tone brings a certain frankness that makes everything from the banal to the patently ridiculous seem utterly believable.
Things to Do When You're Goth in the Country & Other Stories is set up perfectly by the first story, which bears the delightfully unwieldy title of "How to Stop Smoking in Nineteen Thousand Two Hundred and Eighty-Seven Seconds, Usama". At first, it feels like an awkward homecoming, a big city woman's return to the little town she never really felt comfortable in growing up. The character the story is built around is well-drawn, featuring the sort of questioning, not-quite-comfortable-in-the-world feelings so common in people too old to be in school, but too young to have figured out how their life is actually going to go. There are plenty of pet nicknames, observations, and thoughtful near-incongruous asides, things that give us a glimpse into the world Woods is building. It feels a little like a fable for a while, something with a platitude attached, like "think before you speak", or "don't judge a book by its cover". And then the rug gets pulled out from under the reader.
"How to Stop Smoking..." is not an elegant story, and its "twist" admittedly feels a little bit cheap, a little bit out of left field. Think Spielberg's extended coda to A.I.: Artificial Intelligence and you're on the right track. Still, the twist sets up the rest of the book. There is clearly no setting too outlandish for Woods, and she doesn't feel as though she needs to set her readers up for a twist. The twist can just happen -- it doesn't need to make sense in a traditional narrative way, and it definitely doesn't need to be projected by what precedes it. It just happens, and the reader is expected to go along with it. Finishing "How to Stop Smoking" prepares the reader for the seven stories that follow. If you don't put the book down, you're ready for just about anything.
It probably goes without saying but "anything" takes many forms in Woods' hands. Perhaps most memorable is the excellent "A New Mohawk", a story about what life might be like if one day you woke up and the Gaza Strip had grown onto your head instead of hair. Woods' trick here is to get past the novelty of the conceit, diving quickly into what day-to-day life might be like once the acceptance of such a unique predicament had set in. From cable news to conversations with a politically active girlfriend, the entirety of "A New Mohawk" is essentially a series of anecdotes that together add up to a parable of how easy it is to disconnect from tragedy when you're seeing it through a TV screen; human connection to tragedy is nearly impossible unless you are forced to sit and watch its horrors, unless you are forced to relate to those horrors on a personal, visceral level.
Most of Woods' stories are a little more grounded in reality, however. The raw, uncomfortable "Revelations" deals with the base desires of an aged churchgoing widow, and the "twist" in this one is entirely human, even as red herrings and allusions throughout point to the supernatural. "Zombie" is a tale of the thrill and the cost of indulging in secretive and chaotic discoveries. The story that gives the book its title is barely a story so much as it is a study of self, a list of activities and traits that starts cool and detached but slowly opens up to the emotions, the surroundings, the contradictions behind being goth in the country. Woods' sentences in this story start out short, almost wry, and yet by the end flow in an almost stream-of-consciousness, almost beat-poetry sort of cadence that betrays the chaos beneath the hard shell of what we know as "goth". It's a neat trick, really, and a fine wrap-up to what came before.
There are a number of commonalities through Woods' stories. They are all told from the first person; clearly Woods is at her best when she puts herself inside the heads of her characters. They have complicated relationships with god and country, and what those things mean in terms of personal identity. Her characters lean on observation but shy away from judgment, leaving her readers to apply their own values to the happenings in the stories. The similarities between the stories run the risk of making them feel repetitive, but the wide range of subjects keeps that from happening. Rather, by the fourth or fifth story, the voice feels like an old friend, the first-person perspective utterly natural.
None of this is a guarantee that you will enjoy the stories in Things to Do When You're Goth in the Country; to be sure, a couple of the stories are clearly not meant to be enjoyed, per se. Whether you get anything out of it may actually have a lot to do with your reaction to its title. Apart from the rough start (which, again, serves a purpose), though, the stories in Things to Do When You're Goth in the Country & Other Stories are interesting, absorbing, and well worth the short amount of time it takes to read them.