Reviews

My Life May Be a Mess, But 'Wait Till You See Me Dance'

In this excellent volume of stories, Deb Olin Unferth uses a slippery sense of perspective to stoke empathy for characters acting out.


Wait Till You See Me Dance

Publisher: Graywolf
Length: 200 pages
Author: Deb Olin Unferth
Price: $16.00
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2017-03
Amazon
Unferth is a master of misdirection.
Deb Olin Unferth has a reputation as a “writer’s writer”, one of those almost nonsensical phrases that needs unpacking. Sometimes it’s just a euphemism for “good, but not popular. A deeper meaning for the phrase, pertinent to Unferth, could be “excellent in unobvious ways.”

Unferth’s stories refuse to call attention to themselves in any of the easier ways we’ve come to expect; high concept subjects, metafictional trickery, newsworthy themes. In fact, the stories of Unferth’s new collection, Wait Till You See Me Dance, vary so wildly in subject and form that it’s not always easy to find the thread that connects them. They’re usually funny, although some are so bleak as to catch the reader off guard. They’re often based on clever concepts, although that’s never their point and some find inspiration in the mundane. The voice is mostly consistent, if hard to pin down in a word or two -- it’s something like the exasperated voice of a former dreamer now loaded down with responsibility, but who’s counting the days until she lights out for the territories again.

Yet the one facet that best unites these stories is something that feels as much a matter of personal philosophy as a writing style. Unferth is a master of misdirection, leading the reader in one way, only to pull the rug out by radically shifting the perspective of the characters, the reader, or both. It can feel disorienting in the moment, but it’s never in the service of mere trickery or shock, but rather of empathy. Expertly, Unferth constructs situations whose strangeness and intensity robs her characters of rational thought, yet she forces her readers to see these moments for what they are, petty and trivial moments in lives often all too short and painful.

In “Stay Where You Are”, two white Westerners are unwittingly abducted in Central America by an insurgent who soon learns his fellow fighters have left camp without him. In too many narratives, the insurgent would be simply a device, to give a compelling story to the Westerners, but Unferth complicates this throughout by giving the insurgent his own sympathetic perspective. But Unferth isn’t done yet. After immersing the reader in the immediacy of the potentially violent moment, she expands the perspective to encompass thoughts from years later, revealing that this dangerous mistake served as an inflection point in the lives of all involved.

A similar trick is afoot in “The First Full Thought of Her Life”, which depicts the distasteful subject of a shooter looking down a rifle barrel at a random little girl on an outing with her exhausted parents. Unferth’s insight is to see this terrible act of violence as a communication, however vile, between the shooter and society at large, using the innocent girl as a symbol. While a real shooter may be isolated enough in his perspective to squash any qualms, Unferth doesn’t allow her character this luxury. Instead, her narration skitters around the scene, in and out of different minds, even birds; “Oh, the inaccessible inner lives all around us (thought some birds going by above), the lives we can’t imagine.”

Without ever coming face to face, the shooter is soon in conversation with the girl’s indignant mother. Dexterously, Unferth unspools the family’s entire history leading to this point, belying the shooter’s arrogant assumption that the family encapsulates society’s ills. The mother lets loose a withering attack on the shooter’s plan, less for being immoral than for being crass; “She herself was too busy managing this striving and grief to take an afternoon out and wander the area with a weapon. Did he think she’d never looked around and thought, What a bunch of assholes. I’d like to take them all out? That is a particularly unoriginal thought… She’d think it right now if she took the time to look around, but she wouldn’t, because she was busy, unlike Stupid over here.”

Wait Till You See Me Dance consists of two kinds of stories, longer stories of ten- to 20-pages and very short stories of a page or two. The very short stories are a delight to read one after the other, reminiscent of a Lydia Davis interested less in semantics than in emotional absurdities. But even in extremely limited space, Unferth is still able to shake the reader’s equilibrium by playing with perspective.

“The Walk” is under two pages long, simply describing a family outing that none enjoy -- the dog is too hot, the baby is crying, Mom and Dad are tired. Unferth channels exasperation like no other, and the story is funny, casual, and feels on its way to a pleasant conclusion when the last paragraph opens with “The older child was the only one having any fun… she was so used to her younger sister’s cries that she didn’t hear them.” At this point, there are only 50 words remaining, yet in that short time, Unferth shatters the reader with a parenthetical revealing that the ability to ignore her family’s squabbling would “later in life would be seen as a defect -- ‘lack of empathy’ people would say.” With just a few words, Unferth completely reorients the meaning of her story, invoking a future of difficult adaptation that almost feels like a plea to the parents of the story to enjoy this moment while it lasts.

Despite her stylistic gifts as a writer, impressions of Unferth are more easily expressed in personal qualities. Her characters rarely if ever behave well, but she treats them with unflagging generosity and understanding. Each of her stories serves as a reminder that even at our smallest and pettiest, we all have our reasons. Wait Till You See Me Dance is a resounding call for empathy and it doesn’t hurt that it’s clever and hilarious as well.

8


Music


Books


Film


Television


Recent
Film

In Amy Seimetz's 'She Dies Tomorrow', Death Is Neither Delusion Nor Denial

Amy Seimetz's She Dies Tomorrow makes one wonder, is it possible for cinema to authentically convey a dream, or like death, is it something beyond our control?

Music

The 10 Best Experimental Albums of 2015

Music of all kinds are tending toward a consciously experimental direction. Maybe we’re finally getting through to them.

Books

John Lewis, C.T. Vivian, and Their Fellow Freedom Riders Are Celebrated in 'Breach of Peace'

John Lewis and C.T. Vivian were titans of the Civil Rights struggle, but they are far from alone in fighting for change. Eric Etheridge's masterful then-and-now project, Breach of Peace, tells the stories of many of the Freedom Riders.

Music

Unwed Sailor's Johnathon Ford Discusses Their New Album and 20 Years of Music

Johnathon Ford has overseen Unwed Sailor for more than 20 years. The veteran musician shows no sign of letting up with the latest opus, Look Alive.

Jedd Beaudoin
Music

Jazz Trombonist Nick Finzer Creates a 'Cast of Characters'

Jazz trombonist Nick Finzer shines with his compositions on this mainstream jazz sextet release, Cast of Characters.

Music

Datura4 Travel Blues-Rock Roads on 'West Coast Highway Cosmic'

Australian rockers Datura4 take inspiration from the never-ending coastal landscape of their home country to deliver a well-grounded album between blues, hard rock, and psychedelia.

Books

Murder Is Most Factorial in 'Eighth Detective'

Mathematician Alex Pavesi's debut novel, The Eighth Detective, posits mathematical rules defining 'detective fiction'.

Music

Eyedress Sets Emotions Against Shoegaze Backdrops on 'Let's Skip to the Wedding'

Eyedress' Let's Skip to the Wedding is a jaggedly dreamy assemblage of sounds that's both temporally compact and imaginatively expansive, all wrapped in vintage shoegaze ephemera.

Film

Of Purges and Prescience: On David France's LGBTQ Documentary, 'Welcome to Chechnya'

The ongoing persecution of LGBTQ individuals in Chechnya, or anywhere in the world, should come as no surprise, or "amazement". It's a motif undergirding the history of civil society that certain people will always be identified for extermination.

Television

Padma Lakshmi's 'Taste the Nation' Questions What, Exactly, Is American Food

Can food alone undo centuries of anti-immigrant policies that are ingrained in the fabric of the American nation? Padma Lakshmi's Taste the Nation certainly tries.

Film

Performing Race in James Whale's 'Show Boat'

There's a song performed in James Whale's musical, Show Boat, wherein race is revealed as a set of variegated and contradictory performances, signals to others, a manner of being seen and a manner of remaining hidden, and it isn't "Old Man River".

Music

The Greyboy Allstars Rise Up to Help America Come Together with 'Como De Allstars'

If America could come together as one nation under a groove, Karl Denson & the Greyboy Allstars would be leading candidates of musical unity with their funky new album, Como De Allstars.

Music

The Beatles' 'Help!' Redefined How Personal Popular Music Could Be 55 Years Ago

Help! is the record on which the Beatles really started to investigate just how much they could get away with. The album was released 55 years ago this week, and it's the kick-off to our new "All Things Reconsidered" series.

Music

Porridge Radio's Mercury Prize-Nominated 'Every Bad' Is a Wonderful Epistemological Nightmare

With Every Bad, Porridge Radio seduce us with the vulnerability and existential confusion of Dana Margolin's deathly beautiful lyricism interweaved with alluring pop melodies.

Music

​​Beyoncé's 'Black Is King' Builds Identity From Afrofuturism

Beyoncé's Black Is King's reliance on Afrofuturism recuperates the film from Disney's clutches while reclaiming Black excellence.

Reading Pandemics

Colonial Pandemics and Indigenous Futurism in Louise Erdrich and Gerald Vizenor

From a non-Native perspective, COVID-19 may be experienced as an unexpected and unprecedented catastrophe. Yet from a Native perspective, this current catastrophe links to a longer history that is synonymous with European colonization.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

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