I’ve taken a lot of time thinking about what to say about Everything Here Is the Best Thing Ever, debut short story collection by Justin Taylor. As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, I convinced myself that it was going to be my new favorite book although it was months [of agony] before it finally landed on my desk.I wanted to love this book — heck, a chunk of me already had. You know that feeling you get, that conviction of YayLiterarySoulmates? I got that. And in this case, I was wrong. And it’s rather distressing. [This has happened before, with Alicia Erian’s collection.]
Book-Disappointment has always been a difficult thing for me to write about. The more I read, it became more and more apparent that Taylor’s collection had turned into such a different book in my head now, because of all that anticipation.
And I’ve pretty much sorted it out: It’s not so much that the collection failed to live up to my expectations — Everything Here Is the Best Thing Ever is just pretty much not the kind of book I’m inclined to like. Jacket copy + early reviews be damned. I’m confident that during my read, I was able to step away from that pseudo-relationship, and focus on what the book itself held for me. And I was still disappointed, perhaps more so. [I mean, I think it would be a better deal that the book itself holds merit, but it just wasn’t for me -- than what happened in this case.]
Let me be brief about the bad news, as I’d rather focus on the good news — days of agony, I tell you, thinking of how to say all this, how to break it gently to myself, to the world, to this book. [Bring on the metaphors: Like a blind date with a someone you really wanted to like, only s/he doesn’t seem as yummy as he had on the phone / when a well-meaning friend set you up, and before the possibility of a second date rolls around, you’re going to have to say, “Well, hun, I like you and all, but, uhm.”]
I don’t usually read coming-of-age stories, especially when they’re set in this particular age — especially if the storytelling kowtows to this prevalent icky restlessness and caught-in-potential-vapidness. I’m not a fan of listless teenagers and twenty-somethings written about so glumly-cool and finding themselves [although I do like the manifesto-ish "Finding Myself"], and eventually realizing that there’s nothing they can do — or perhaps that there’s nothing they ought to do — ergo: they’re static characters. Nothing changes, they’re caught in that malaise.
Hell, I like malaise. But, always, always, you have to tell it well to win me over. Taylor’s stories are well-written, with precise prose lending itself well to easy storytelling — steady, that occasional A-ha! moment, and when it works, the right touch of glibness. But there’s something missing. Some disconnect, failing to strike at the heart of things, at hearts.
Bah. This is all so frustrating because it sill hurts. There’s this immense talent, and I’m selfish enough to demand that he focus on other things. The things I like [because, dammit, a lot of people like this book the way it is already, so know that I might just be in the goddamned minority].
I liked him best quiet, restrained. The story I liked best — incidentally, the only story in the POV of a woman [although at first I thought it sounded like a man] — is “Weekend Away,” about, well, a weekend away, driving across states, and picking up hitchhikers, and the ensuing complications, and the possibility of staying away. As are majority of Taylor’s characters, this one’s lost too — and stuck in absurd / quirky situations. I appreciate, though, that the author risked [finally] going deeper, addressing the issues that could have driven her away. It’s more mature, more serious, more dignified. And the narrative’s woven with the present, and with what’s really been bugging her:
This is the first I’m mentioning Jack. I know that. He’s the guy I’ve been seeing since a few months after Steven left. He’s a strong, tender lover and a good man. I have this problem where whenever he’s not around I forget he exists, until some random moment when I remember that I’m not just a wrong lonely woman and in fact am loved by somebody, somebody in every way better — anyway, better to me — than the person I lost. The heart can be funny but the mind can be funnier.
Funny is almost certainly not the right word.
And here’s the short story, “A House in Your Arms,” gender-bending, crazy-wild loving. When Taylor melds his vision of indifferent gloom and young jadedness and gets all charming and gritty and balanced and just right. See:
I no longer think of Leah as the love of my life, but I do still sometimes think we might make each other the happiest. It would be more like teaming up than being married. We could do all kinds of things together: whatever she wanted to. I could work, she could sculpt; she could have girls too if she wanted. She could bring them home to us sometimes.
I know it’s silly but I think about it.
Also I think maybe it isn’t so silly.
I’m imagining the two of us at a party together, her wearing a black dress with a plunging V neck, me not in anything particular, and she’s talking to some old friend of ours. She’s telling a funny story about something I said on account of having misunderstood something she said, and how we argued until we realized that the original miscommunication had been, and how afterward, everything was okay.
But these two stories are exceptions, and even the latter veers towards what I’ve been iffy about, re Taylor’s stories: that nagging feeling that something’s missing, and that no matter how many times you agonize over defining that something, it’s always out of reach. So much so that you, Dear Reader, begin to doubt your judgment all over again.
Justin Taylor has a new book — a novel! — coming out early next year. So perhaps, let me amend that long-winded metaphor: That the blind date went well, despite a heap of disappointments, but you really want to give this thing a try, so you’re going to have to lay it all out there, at the risk of hurting the other guy, at the risk of revealing too much of yourself, and, well, later on, much later, once the air has cleared, you’re ready to ask, “So, are you free sometime early next year?”