Tuesday, May 19, 2015

"Refund," by Karen E. Bender

For some reason I don’t completely understand, but am trying to figure out, I felt a complicated and rather visceral resistance to, and even dislike of, “Refund” (Counterpoint, 2015), Karen E. Bender’s new short story collection. I knew from reviews that the main theme was money and how it, or in most cases in these stories the lack of it, affects its characters and their lives. That sounded intriguing. Upon reading the stories, although I admired them in the abstract, I didn’t like their grimness and, at times, hopelessness. There are, to vastly oversimplify, two main sets of reasons that I dislike a book. One is reasons to do with the book itself. The other is reasons to do with my own tastes and preferences in reading material, and my own attitudes. My reasons for disliking “Refund” are of the second type; I actually think the stories are well written and compelling, but I found them harsh and disturbing. I do think this says something about myself more than about the book, and I am sorry to think that I shy away from stories that make me uncomfortable. As I get older, I wonder if I am just less willing to put myself through that kind of discomfort. If this is true, I am not proud of it. In my own defense, I do sometimes read books that are about terrible, painful topics. But perhaps those books still don’t force readers to confront the gritty realities of some people’s lives in an unvarnished way, with no literary protections? To get back to “Refund”: These are -- sadly -- stories of and for our times, in which people are suddenly laid off for reasons of corporate profit, and/or work two or more jobs to make ends meet, and worry about how they will pay their bills, let alone buy things for their children. Money problems have not only devastating concrete effects, but also emotional effects, destroying people’s confidence and hope for the future. I find the stories powerful, original, and real, and despite my own feelings of discomfort, I am not sorry I read the book.
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