'Other People We Married': Emma Straub's superb stories

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Although texting has been blamed for a sharp increase in automotive mishaps in recent years, one happy accident of social messaging is its salubrious effect on short fiction. As communications grow ever shorter, a thumbnail economy of both prose and imagery has evolved among GenText writers, re-energizing this great American genre.

"Other People We Married"
By Emma Straub
Riverhead Books ($15).

Thirtysomething Emma Straub provides 12 excellent examples of this trend in her debut collection, "Other People We Married." The messages she sends -- of choice and change, seeing and not seeing -- are brief and clear, and relayed in a breezy style that belies the directness with which she confronts the conflicts inherent in all relationships.

First issued in 2011 by a tiny independent press, this slim volume gained a following among Brooklyn literati and was snapped up by Riverhead Books. Re-released last month, it has a surprising cross-generational appeal; fresh and funky, yet grounded in familiar literary tradition.

The daughter of horror writer Peter Straub (whose earliest published work, interestingly, was a mainstream novel titled "Marriages"), Ms. Straub honors her father by acknowledging the sinister undertones of everyday life.

In "Rosemary," for instance, a disoriented new mother consults a psychic on the whereabouts of her missing cat, paying $600 to realize what she already knew in her heart about her beloved pet and inscrutable husband. In "Abraham's Enchanted Forest," the adolescent daughter of a theme-park proprietor comes this close to running away on a lark with a pair of strangers, oblivious to the real-world dangers beyond her sheltered, charmed existence. And the trailing-spouse protagonist of "Fly-Over State" takes to hanging out with a young male neighbor of the squirrel-shooting, grocery-bagging, basement-dwelling type, with "skin the pale color of sliced bread," seemingly unaware of the psycho-killer cliché he embodies.

Another influential icon receiving a nod from the young author is J.D. Salinger, whose creation, Franny Glass, appears as the only recurrent character in Ms. Straub's stories. Unlike the 1955 original of "Franny & Zooey" fame, the reimagined Fran is not a prodigy seeking illumination through constant prayer, but merely a bright girl with a slightly outrageous manner who does a lot of wishful thinking. She achieves enlightenment nevertheless, progressing through three tales from ignorance to wisdom simply by meeting with ordinary disappointments.

This is not to suggest that Ms. Straub's work is derivative. She honors her antecedents, but demonstrates a talent and imaginative creativity entirely her own.

Perhaps the most exceptional stories are a pair of contrasting sketches of widowhood. In "Puttanesca," a grieving young woman hopes to find a happy ending by replacing her dead partner, but fails to recapture the love she has lost. Going through the motions with a rich new man in Rome, she observes with disembodied despair her inexorable transformation into a thinly disguised courtesan. Standing before a sculpture of the startled, shape-shifting nymph Daphne, she realizes that in her willingness "to do anything to get away, to move on ... she didn't quite understand that this is how it would be."

The widow featured in "Marjorie and the Birds" belongs to a generation that still associates "tweet" and "twitter" with the natural world. She doesn't get her man, but rediscovers love sublimated in a hobby that unfolds like a romance. On one early morning ramble, she responds to birdsong as if it were a lover: "The park sounded so beautiful to her, like it and she had been asleep together and were only now waking up, were only now beginning to understand what was possible."

Read this book and alert the twitteratti: E STRAUB IS GR8 RITR!

Sandra Levis, literary editor of Pittsburgh Quarterly, lives in Point Breeze.


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