That up there [click picture to enlarge, you have to] is Bed (Oil on linen; 80×36 inches; 2003) by Alyssa Monks, who is now one of my favorite painters [though I can go on and on about certain realists who rely too much on technique and bah where was I?]. That up there is also the wrap-around cover image for What He’s Poised to Do, the latest short story collection of Ben Greenman. And Ben Greenman, I’ve read nine stories of the 14 stories as of this post — and have reread half of that — and I’m in love. All of these stories are wonderful. Seriously. In love. I am furious with love.
Mr. Greenman had me hyperventilating on my train ride home. Once I’d parked in a café, and read more of him, I put my face in my hands. You have to be still for these stories, you are compelled to breathe deeply afterwards. These are some of the finest examples of the craft of fiction I’ve come across, the language hits you where it most hurts, and the heart, oh, the heart in these stories. Also, the awe-envy in mine.
I wrote in my notebook: I think I’m going to cry. I want to write as good as this. I want to rip Greenman’s soul out and hold it up to the light. Yeah. That too. But I didn’t cry. Tried not to. Instead, I wrote on the margins variations of Greenman: At this scene — a very short one, a very minor detail to the story — this man kisses this girl’s shoulder. And that’s it. I tried to fit a paragraph on the margins of page 14, elaborating that kiss, weaving a new story of my own out of Greenman’s three sentences. Is that cheating? Dear god, I wrote a story. Page 14 is a palimpsest.
I’ve read the supplementary material at the back of the book, too — an interview with him, and a mini-essay by him. Good lord, look:
I have a third friend who once asked me why I write mostly about human relationships. “There’s more,” she said. She’s wrong. There’s not more, or at least not a more important job for fiction. You can (and should) stretch that theme around whatever frame you want, and put whatever frame you want around that theme. Stories can take place, as they do in this collection, in the distant past in wartime, in the recent past on the moon, on the imaginary border between two noncontiguous countries. No matter where they’re set, and no matter when, they explore the way men and women delight and infuriate each other, and in doing so illuminate my sense that this is still, after all these centuries, humanity’s proper central preoccupation.
I have five stories left in the collection. Although I can reread all this until the book falls apart in my hand, nothing can beat that first experience of someone’s new story, someone prose. Should I speed through them, devour them since I really do need to? Or do I take it slow, make it last longer, draw this beautiful thing out? Well. Probably the former.
I’m making a fool out of myself because of this slim book. Yay, dammit.