Friday, May 19, 2017

"You Are Having a Good Time," by Amie Barrodale

In my last post (5/14/17) I “confessed” my incurable although vexed love of an English accent (posh version), along with many things English. Continuing in the confessional mode, I will admit (as I have before, although perhaps not this directly) that I don’t like “edgy” fiction. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say I don’t like fiction that is trying too hard to be “edgy.” It is a little difficult to define what I mean by that. Part of it is an experimental quality. But a larger part is a too-obvious effort to be slightly shocking, slightly off-kilter, slightly eccentric, but at the same time hip and cool. Often the novels or stories I refer to here feature somewhat kinky or slightly masochistic or reckless sex, but this is not the part I object to. I think the part that bothers me most is that these stories often feature young women with no sense of direction that lead aimless lives, meanwhile complaining about those lives but also flaunting their unconventionality. I fully admit that there is an intangible quality that I am trying to describe, and I may not be very successful at doing so. The reason I am thinking about this (again) is that I have just finished reading a short story collection by Amie Borrodale titled “You Are Having a Good Time” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016). As the back-cover description states, “…the veneer of normality is stripped from her characters’ lives to reveal the seething and contradictory desires that fuel them.” The description goes on to say that this fiction is “startlingly funny and original.” I agree with the first part of the description, although I think it makes the stories sound more interesting than they are. I disagree with the second quotation, as to me the stories are neither funny nor original, except in a very superficial, trying-too-hard way. I also disagree with the back-cover blurb contributed by Mary Gaitskill (herself known for her edgy writing, which I admire although I can't really enjoy), which states that Barrodale is “witty, soulful, and sharp” and that this book is “delightful and touching.” (Here I will give the same disclaimer I often give when I am posting a negative “review”: I know I could never write even mediocre fiction myself. Despite this, I believe serious readers have the right to share their responses, negative and positive and everything in between, to what they read.) In the stories in “You Are Having a Good Time,” there are odd meetings between odd characters, too much drinking, semi-spiritual beliefs undermined by unwelcome desires, a ghost or two, a very unethical psychiatrist, strained relationships among family members and friends, a preoccupation with bodies and appearances, the semi-poverty of youth launching themselves into the adult world and figuring out their next steps, urban life, strange coincidences, the aforementioned sex, and more. I did keep reading to the end, so obviously I found something interesting in this story collection. But I was left with a feeling of the inauthentic. And whether fairly or not, I attribute much of that to what appeared to me to be the author’s trying too hard to be edgy, original, and unusual, but not succeeding in doing so.

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