Hannah Vincent’s story collection She-Clown and Other Stories is filled with 16 relatively short tales where protagonists miss opportunities and experience mocked expectations. Its characters often seem out of place or out of step with their environment, negotiating slightly off-balance situations or disturbing interactions with others. Vincent’s stories are populated with characters who are confronted with quirky, inexplicable choices. They encounter a point at which they reveal a starkly personal, disturbing aspect of themselves, an uncomfortable secret.
Many of these stories mock our expectations by leading us down a particular path before veering into a ditch. A seemingly minor detail brings an entire character’s plight into sharper focus. For example, a young mother is breastfeeding her baby at her job where she is a caregiver/support person for an old man in a wheelchair:
“Richard often wheels his chair to sit watching her as she feeds, but she never acknowledges him. Neither of them mentions the arrangement. . . . She wonders if he is turned on by it. Horribly, she would like it if he was.”
In “She-Clown,” a woman finalises her preparations for performing at a children’s party by stuffing a handful of balloons and a condom inside her top pocket. Inside the house, she immediately recognises two fathers with whom she’s had sex. Another story simultaneously emphasises the closeness shared by two sisters and modulates our definition of the state of being an orphan: “With their mother’s death, Carys and her sister have been orphaned. They are middle-aged, but that doesn’t stop Carys feeling this status of theirs keenly.”
Vincent’s characters notice mundane details that capture a scene or a hinge in a story, details that might be overlooked by others. A woman notices a “line of pale skin at the nape of his neck where his tan ended before his T-shirt began.” Another woman visits a sick old woman’s apartment: “I sit on the floor next to her chair. There is a patch of what looks like dried vomit on the carpet. It doesn’t smell—too old, maybe, or the smell of cigarettes masking it.”
In one of the collection’s best stories, “Portrait of the Artist,” everything we learn about its main character comes from her observations and reactions. This mother sits with her overbearing husband in a teacher’s office discussing the stories of their senior-high-school daughter. As her husband and her daughter’s teacher discuss their “strong stuff,” the mother nervously picks up a black button from the floor. She silently observes her husband. “His face was flushed, and she could see a small patch of bristles in the hollow of his throat where he had missed a bit when shaving.” Later at home, listening to her husband argue with their daughter, she escapes to the laundry room and “slipped a hand into her pocket and took out the button. She held it against one of the dolly’s drawn-on eyes. . . . She hid the doll among the polishes and detergents once more. She would sew it on tonight, when the rest of the world was asleep.”
In her most formally ambitious story, “3 o’clock,” words are splashed on the page in various ways as if reflecting different thoughts and intensities. A penumbra of narrative emerges. We are eavesdropping on an old woman who is coping with senility and dementia. Her language outbursts sometimes resemble complete sentences, sometimes fragments of modern poetry, suggesting a mind fading in and out like radio signals.
In a deliciously demented story called “The Poison Frog,” a woman with a persistent cough goes to her doctor who identifies the obstruction in her throat as a frog and surgically extricates it. Another young mother gets so frustrated with her conservative, officious French mother that she bites her own toddler. She reflects: “Maman wasn’t—isn’t—such a terrible mother. At least she never bit me.”
Vincent has been tenderising her readers for 140 pages to expect the unexpected and embrace off-putting responses, slightly creepy characters and situations. This rhetorical preamble has functioned as soup, salad, and appetizer: time for the main course, the collection’s best and final story, “Woman of the Year.” A group of women has been invited to a fancy reception, although none know why or by whom. The audacious choice of the second person narrative raises the story’s stakes:
“You received an invitation to a formal luncheon celebrating ‘Woman of the Year’. You don’t know who sent the invite, which reminds you that someone thinks highly of you, considers you worth inviting, wants to celebrate you.”
The mysterious event slowly usurps the idea of a celebration. At first, the women are reticent, baffled, seeking explanations. Champagne flows. Food is served, some of which is unrecognizable, although tempting and delicious. Odd details surface. 26 tables. At one table every name begins with “C” and one table over all the names begin with “B.” A frog escapes from a little girl and jumps up on a table. A woman breastfeeds. A trickle of water grows louder, the rain increases, and the wind becomes stronger.
Any Cop?: Loved this collection. Loved it. Can’t wait for more writing from Ms. Vincent.