This book contains two decent length novellas and four short stories, and my advice is take your time, these stories are dense in language and ideas, and not for the easy-reader.
‘Last Resort Retreat’, for instance, hurtles along fuelled with hatred, frustration and an attitude like spittle. The prose is clever, words-linked-up-with-hyphens inventive. And the subject matter is not laid back either. Norm and ‘Moth’ are going to a retreat for couples whose marriages have ‘landed up against a concrete wall’. They are encouraged to enact cathartic strangulations and castrations, attend their own murder trials and write eulogies for their role-played dead partners. The language and dialogue are fiery, bitter, volleying and invective-filled. If short stories were drugs then this would be intravenous amphetamine. I was left with an aching jaw, a dry mouth, and a feeling of being exhausted; such is the comedown from Mary Caponegro.
The other short stories in here are equally exhausting. ‘Ashes Ashes We All Fall Down’ is the story of Carter whose mother is dying of cancer and wife having a difficult pregnancy. Death and birth are both imminent and he is dealing with this himself. This story is angry, ranting, and bitter, with a similar pace to the first, and I started to realise that Caponegro’s stories need to be read with enough rest periods in between, time to recover to a certain extent, a break from the intense narrative style.
‘But Carter, far less reasonable than his better half, is agitated – from the doorbell, from the cough drops, from the day after day in the landscape of someone else’s disease, sandwiched between his post-precancerous pre-postpartum wife and his postcancerous pre-posthumous mother – buffering and ferrying and shepherding from hospital bed to home to hospital proper from pre-op to post-op to “hear the heartbeat honey, can you feel the kick?” while life kicks him again and again and again in the balls, as God the referee counts theatrically from one to ten. Seven, eight, nine, oh shit he’s up again, there’s Carter for another round’.
Phew. This is not a climactic moment or narrative peak, this is the pace and tone of the writing – relentlessly clever and almost like ‘the perpetual prodrome to emotional seizure’ that describes Carter’s life.
The prose style draws the reader into the emotional intensity of these stories, and this is in part its success and its failure. These stories are prolifically good, but there is no relief, no rest period, no time to reflect or draw breath, and this was what I started to desperately need as I was reading – a contrast.
The first novella, ‘Ill-Timed’, is equally fast-paced and intensely fuelled by rapid-fire dialogue, a real strength of Caponegro’s style. She captures argumentative dialogue with such authenticity it’s as though we are bearing witness to Paula and Alex’s destructive disputes.
Paula is an albino ‘lesbian in training’ and her partner Alex used to be a fit, gorgeous parachutist, mountaineer and all-round perfect athlete before she got Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. They have been together for almost a year, but their relationship is fraught with antagonism, almost as if conversation were a combat sport. They are playful, flirtatious, argumentative, and constantly banter words between them, as if it is a competition. And much of it is the kind of clever shit that lovers say to deliberately wind each other up.
The novella is rich with detail, and their relationship is explored with depth. We learn about their love, their relationships with parents, their bodies, ideas about beauty, how their relationship evolved, sex.
The language is dense (I had to look up words like tchotchkes and caesura), inventive and filled with superlatives (‘nature broke the mold when it produced such stunning beauty)’ and extended metaphor, for example, opening a parachute ‘as if it were a jasmine pearl in hot water, or a rose from the Tea House garden where she had drunk the very tea the jasmine pearl produced, or a dandelion blooming in space…’ (it continues).
I love ‘mountaineering the stairs’ and their conversations about ‘cutting the rope’ which relate to mountaineering and the emotional co-dependency of their relationship. I also like the idea of ‘psychic earplugs’, which if they were developed, I would be first in the line to buy. Ideas are explored to maturity, for instance, ideas about illness: ‘most medical technology cannot accommodate the embodiment of moral support’. This struck me as deeply observed insight, how isolating illness can be, and there are many other such ideas explored within this novella.
But, there is something exhausting about such dense, fast-paced, antagonistic prose. Alex sums it up nicely when she says to Paula ‘I like our being kids in the candy shop and all, but sometimes talking with you is like talking with some annoying child, one riff and that’s it, you’re off – you beat it into the ground.’ I felt as if they were both annoying children sometimes. I sympathised most with the bus driver who asks them to ‘officially vacate the vehicle’ because of how their row is upsetting the other passengers, and the guy who bans them from coming back to the Whole Food store. I wanted to yell at them, SHUT UP, chill out, OMG, do you argue about EVERYTHING? But the answer is yes, they row about who is most discriminated against, who has the worst mother, who has the worse illness/hypersensitivity, what tea to drink…
It must be a sign of a successful story that I was so involved and bothered by it all. It is authentic alright, so authentic, I wanted to tell them to just split up now, before it got any worse.
The other short stories are ‘Junior Achievement’, a very dark, disturbing story, and ‘A Daughter in Time’, for me the best story in the collection, mainly because it took such a different perspective to 9/11, and shows how a woman who thinks she has ‘enlightened status’ turns out to be totally unprepared for what happens when her daughter goes to college.
I have to confess that I haven’t read the second novella yet. I will at some point, but the rest of the collection was so intense, I needed a break, and this looked difficult to read from scanning the first pages. I couldn’t quite bring myself to immerse myself in another of Caponegro’s worlds just yet. I was exhausted with it, and realized I might never write this review if I waited until I was ready to open the book again.
Any Cop?: If you are prepared to assaulted with fiery, amphetamine-paced prose, with enough derision to start a relationship breakdown, then go for it. My advice to you is take breaks between stories, prepare to work at it, and remember to breathe.