Truthtelling: Stories, Fables, Glimpses
By Lynne Sharon Schwartz
224 pp., $24.95
Every movie I watch now is a movie about an entire cast of people who seem to not have cancer, or at least this is, to me, its plot,” Anne Boyer observes in The Undying, her recent Pulitzer Prize-winning inquiry into cancer. The 25 stories in Truthtelling have nothing, or at least very little, to do with cancer. And yet I found myself thinking about Boyer’s line while I followed Lynne Sharon Schwartz’s charming, eccentric and occasionally cranky characters as they race around New York City, riding buses and subway trains, popping into the apartments of sick neighbors, going to movie theaters and live performances, wandering in leisurely fashion through grocery stores. The plot, to me, is the opposite of illness. The plot is pre-pandemic life.
That we tend to read myopically, or at least through a lens informed by individual circumstance, is fairly obvious, but that makes it all the more surprising, midway through this collection, to discover one particular pre-pandemic gem. “A Few Days Off,” first published in the literary journal Agni in 2018, features a woman who wakes up one morning feeling burnt out, “as if the flame of energy had waned and finally succumbed to the ambient air currents.” She calls in sick and holes up in bed with magazines and tea, which she finds so enjoyable that she calls in sick again. And again. The more she withdraws, the more she wonders why she had been so determined over the years to go about her business. “Everyone dashed here and there, but was there any good reason for so much activity?”
It doesn’t take a global health crisis to learn to find solace in retreat, yet it’s difficult to read this as anything but prophetic. In fact, many of the stories in this collection read a bit like allegory, as the title, and particularly the subtitle, imply: Stories, Fables, Glimpses. These stories may skew to traditional narrative form, but many are best read as musings, ruminations or parables.
Or, in the case of “I Want My Car,” all of the above, plus one long, droll recital of grievance by a man whose soon-to-be ex-wife has borrowed and failed to return his car. In his self-absorbed narration, we glean much of what we need to know about why the marriage collapsed. “I was awfully fond of it, but I could probably find one just like it,” he says of his red 2018 Acura. “By the same token, Mona can, and probably will, get a new husband, but not, I imagine, one just like me.”
Schwartz has published more than 20 books, including 12 works of fiction, and there is a certain pleasure in coming late to the writing of such an accomplished and prolific author. A reader has plenty of time, these days, to work backward through her canon.
She has been a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner award for her novel Leaving Brooklyn and a finalist for the National Book Award and the PEN/Hemingway First Novel Award for Rough Strife, where some of the characters in this collection originated.
One of the standouts in this collection is “Public Transit,” also first published in Agni. “My demise started with a little incident on the Broadway bus recently,” the story begins. Someone asks the protagonist to move her backpack so that he can occupy the seat next to her, even though the bus is fairly empty. So begins another diverting riff, involving another cranky narrator, who goes on to chronicle various other transportation injustices, devolving, at last, into a Munchian scream on the subway. The authorities await as her train pulls into the next station.
Not all of these stories skew funny or glib: “A Taste of Dust,” which first appeared in Ninth Letter and was selected for the anthology Best American Short Stories 2005, captures the confusing gamut of emotions experienced by middle-aged Violet when she joins her adult children for lunch at the home of her ex-husband and watches him interact with his new wife and family. At one point the former couple lock eyes, and in that glimpse she sees a message that is “complex and would have to be decoded at leisure.” The grace note of this story contains an elegant emotional pivot. Violet observes her ex-husband suffering: “He owned all the misery his risks had earned; he was in the thicket of his mistakes, impaled…” And yet, as the door closes behind her, she feels envy. “His life was dense and palpitating. She was clean and dry as old bones.”
“But I Digress,” first published in Narrative Magazine, is the only story in this collection that veers into religious, or at least ethnic, territory. “I met a Russian at a party,” it begins. “A large jovial man with a broad face…” The man explains that in the winter he goes to Florida to hang out with fellow Russians. The narrator suggests he might find fellow Russians at Brighton Beach, which is closer by. “Oh no, those are not really Russians,” he explains, in what then becomes a meditation on ethnicity. “Being Jewish in Russia,” he explains, “is not being Russian.”
The conversation causes the narrator to reminisce about her family, her Ukrainian-born father and his sister, her Aunt Frieda, and about Frieda’s husband, Uncle Dave, who could “wiggle his big ears” and who loved poetry. “I delighted in his whimsical conversation… in his stories the line between fact and fiction was blurred, the way I liked it and still do.”
Which might be Schwartz’s wink to the reader. One wishes for the author’s notes, so that we might have some guilty insight into which pieces of these engaging stories are true, and which are fables.
Susan Keselenko Coll is the author of five novels, most recently The Stager, and president of the PEN/Faulkner Foundation.
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