Split Lip REVIEWS
Sarah Layden’s The Story I Tell Myself About Myself
by James Figy
The Story I Tell Myself About Myself
Sonder Press | August 30, 2018
The same is true of most characters in the book, each of them nearly arriving at an epiphany but avoiding the cliché because they know it won’t change anything in their lives. “Comet’s Return” introduces Davey, a womanizer who ruminates in his truck after his father’s funeral, as he waits for a comet that hasn’t appeared in decades. In “Comet’s Return,” and other stories of stillness, the prose does the heavy lifting, with sentences such as: “He turns his Ford’s ignition key and thinks about the coffin, oblong, and the hole dug by the gravediggers, and how the coffin—and his father—fit in that hole as if they had been born to do so (and they had.)”
The stories with more movement distill the characters’ situations, desires, and flaws to the naked truth. Take, for example, this section of “Marv’s 11 Steps,” a story that centers around a bar with tango footsteps glued to a warped dance floor: “He sighs Sheila’s name into Emily’s hair. She doesn’t correct him, nor does she answer to it. Do they share more than they know? But even if they each want to be other people, with other people, and somewhere else, here and now there is music, music and someone, their feet stepping in the same cracked pattern.”
On occasion, the collection indulges the absurd, fabulist, and experimental to explore truth. These pieces share the incredible, economic prose with their realist counterparts. Stories with magical elements unfold without excessive detail or exposition. However, the premise is always straightforward, sometimes stated in the title. There’s “The Woman Who Was a House,” for example. There’s “The Woman with No Skin” who “wanted to let the world in. But the problem with the world was that it wanted to be let in all the way.” She devises a jumpsuit to keep other people’s words from sticking to her, but ends up feeling their impact anyway.
The most successful is “He Waits, Wants,” in which gender roles are swapped for an expecting couple, not just socially, but biologically. The husband, uncomfortable and feeling his own body unfamiliar, struggles through pregnancy. The wife gives little support, preferring not to see her spouse’s discomfort to justify spending time with pals at the corner bar. As the due date nears, the husband “complains, lying prostrate, ‘I just saw the future. I’m tied down and you can roam.’ She doesn’t correct him, only says, ‘Back in a minute.’” The reader easily finds her bearings in this world, and those of the other magical stories, because the prose resonates so deeply with so few words.
Layden pushes this sparseness to the limit in “Fulfilled.” This 123-word story experiments with blanks to fill in—either mentally or physically, so long as it’s not a library copy. (For example: “Preteens are surprisingly ________. Thirty-somethings are never ________.”) The story asks, first, how formulaic and archetypal are characters even in literary fiction? Maybe it’s possible that writers can boil down every piece to a simple Mad Libs. And second, how much does the reader already superimpose on a story anyway, consciously or likely otherwise? Maybe the writer has little control over how it’s received. They’re concerns that Layden summarizes best: “Maybe you will get what you ________.”
Minimalism provides a tool to throw the truth into sharper relief, but sometimes the same economy looks like concealment. The main character of “Decoy”—distrustful of her babysitter who’s running late, her ex-husband, everyone—describes it this way: “People wanted to pull one over on you, hide from you their true hearts. They only wanted to give you so much, though sometimes you wanted—needed—more.” Layden, however, does not scrimp. Each character feels vivid, alive, desperate, and demands to be read and reread. The Story I Tell Myself About Myself is an impressive testament to the way a story grows stronger, more honest when writers ruthlessly tear away every inessential phrase, the way people can become more resilient when life does the same.
What remains once all but the essential is stripped away forms the backbone of flash fiction. In The Story I Tell Myself About Myself, Sarah Layden shows that the act of paring down to see what’s left can also expose the truth of who a person is. The fifteen stories in Layden’s new collection—a follow-up to her powerhouse debut novel, Trip Through Your Wires—explore loss, loneliness, and life. The stories run the gamut from magical realism to realism that’s magical, each with Layden’s sharp wit, insightfully drawn characters, and unflinching prose.
The book begins with both feet planted firmly in realism with “Hang Up.” In the story, a man calls his former lover over and over but never says a word. The woman listens to his breathing and sometimes tells stories, giving “the female characters her name and the male characters his.” Neither wants to hang up first, like teens in young love, but the woman expects every second to hear the click and dial tone. Even here, Layden takes what might seem mundane in a lesser writer’s hands and makes it extraordinary, while pulling off a seamless point of view shift. Without saying it, the characters show that no matter whether their lives appear to be all-together or all in shambles, the most important piece is missing.
James Figy is a recovering Hoosier who lives in St. Paul, Minnesota, and a graduate of the MFA program at Minnesota State University, Mankato. His creative work can be found in Hobart, Midwestern Gothic, Cheap Pop, and the anthology Bad Jobs & Bullshit. Check out the Fail Better interview series he runs for Fear No Lit, and follow him on twitter @JAFigy.