Women in Bed/Jessica Keener: Reflections

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Jessica Keener and I became friends slowly, through social media, though both of us are, in fact, very much real-people people. Look you in the eyes people. Grab a cup of tea and talk people. Walk up Newbury Street in the freezing wind speaking of flowers in the summer people.

Which is what we got to be when I went to Boston for a few days recently.

Last May, while traveling by train to Washington, DC, to surprise my niece on her thirteenth birthday, I read and loved Jessica Keener's much-heralded debut novel, Night Swim. In Boston, Jessica gave me an inscribed copy of her new and gorgeously produced collection of nine short stories, Women in Bed (The Story Plant). Once again I was reading Jessica while traveling—this time through the raucous Tuesday skies from Boston to Philadelphia.

Today, Thanksgiving, I woke to finish these shimmering and unexpected stories. These originals. Like Alyson Hagy, Jessica Francis Kane, Alice Elliott Dark, Susan Straight, Robin Black, Alice Munro, among others, Jessica Keener is an exquisite writer of the shorter tale. She has mastered that nearly impossible trick of condensing entire lives into compelling and telling brevities. Of finding just the right image. Of stealing just the right snatches of dialogue from what, in a novel, would run as full-fledged-and-then-he-coughed digressions or scenes.

We don't need anything more than what Jessica gives us here. We are convinced, persuaded, brokenhearted by these women who don't have what they want, or don't know what they can have, or can't find the proper language of desire. They run, they walk, they sit, they wait, they steer a boat out onto a chlorine-colored sea, and always, always, they return in their thoughts or in their lives to a lying-in place, to sheets and pillows.

Consistently the language is thrilling. Sometimes quietly. Sometimes not.

Look at this paragraph, from "Boarders":
In the shadows of the backyard, pine trees lacing the property appeared more distant than they actually were. The lawn, stiffened with frost, bent like thin, wire mesh under her feet. She headed for the small swing set and began to swing under a big, leafless oak. She knew it was cold but felt nothing.
Now look at this, from "Woman With Birds in her Chest":
In April she struggled in her sleep. Her dreams became shadows of fingers, and the night, a troubling piece of lint in her throat. Beside her Miles slept with his arm heavy on her thigh. She wanted to wake him. Something wrong? Everything okay? he would have asked. But she didn't.

She didn't know. She didn't know.
Lawn like wire mesh. Night like a troubling piece of lint. These are two stellar images among countless stellar images written not to declare a brilliance but to elucidate a moment, a woman, a mood.

I have learned from Jessica Keener, reading this collection. And I think that you will, too.

A sweet Happy Thanksgiving to you all.


Perle said...

Excellent review of Jessica's writing. I read Night Swim twice.

Patry Francis said...

I have been trying to understand why each of these stories feel like a small miracle to me, why they haunt me so. It is those trees that are closer than you think. The cold so viscerally present, but unable to be felt. You capture it in this one sentence:

"She has mastered that nearly impossible trick of condensing entire lives into compelling and telling brevities."

Wonderful review.

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