Friday
Apr122013

Tell Everyone I Said Hi

By Chad Simpson


University of Iowa Press
February 2012
978-1609381264

Reviewed by Alexander Lumans


 

Let x equal the moment before you start reading a short story. In this moment, you are you: a thinking, feeling, self-assuring, toilet-plunging, recycling-versus-trashing, grocery-store-coupon-redeeming person. With all due respect, you may not be ready to take on anything extra, be it cashier error, taco party invite, or book. It's a decision. And decisions, no matter how small, require a moment of sentimental expenditure—one in which the outcome is never constant. But then here you are, decision-maker, reading these opening lines:

"My brother calls and says to get to the bar as fast as I can—he thinks he just died." (from "Miracle")

"My twelve-year-old daughter Peloma kept trying to kill herself." (from "Peloma")

"The sun wasn't even fully up yet and there I was, on some stranger's roof, about to begin work for the day, when this girl, maybe four or five years old, tottered down the front steps of the house across the street in an old-fashioned nurse's uniform. (from "House Calls")

"Let x equal the moment just after he tells her he's starting a club for people who know something about computers." (from "Let x")

These first lines each imply some call to action, some difficult decision on the character's part, some obfuscation that needs clarity or clarity that needs obfuscation. They promise to fulfill, even exceed expectations. And yet the stories in Chad Simpson's Tell Everyone I Said Hi do not satisfy you in ways you expect. That's because this thinking and feeling—that you know exactly what you want—is what these stories thoroughly investigate.

Let x equal the moment you've moved past the opening line and are now several parts or pages into the story. You've committed to the decision to keep reading. You've ventured into unknown territory.

"Peloma" and the last story "Consent" (which takes place several years later in the lives of "Peloma's" characters) are two of the longest pieces. They follow a father and daughter who are dealing, in different yet self-destructive ways, with the death of their wife and mother in a car accident two years prior. Together, the two stories are a finely wrought study of long-term grief and how the further away from tragedy one gets, the more haunting and painful it can become; consequently, these longer stories (as well as the title story and "You Would've Counted Yourself Lucky") display what people surprisingly find themselves doing in the face of inevitability.

His shorter stories show Simpson honing in on sharply rendered characters forced into difficult choices. In "The First Night Game at Wrigley," the narrator remembers the evening his unborn son was conceived, which becomes a deeper inquisition into whether he and his girlfriend did the right thing by not having the child. And in "American Bulldog," Anna, left alone with the bulldog that her husband bought before his death, is confronted with a flooded basement; she considers throwing in the loathsome bulldog to determine if the water is electrified. 

But where Simpson excels is in his shortest pieces, which punctuate the longer stories with quick punches to the gut, leaving you breathless—akin to Dybek's flash breaks in The Coast of Chicago. "Obnubilate" details a son's uncertainties with regard to his mother's recent mastectomy. "fourteen" focuses on a young girl's budding sexuality through, among several things, her lesbian sister's own trauma. "Let x" (perhaps my favorite story of the whole collection) is a single exchange between boy and girl, by way of mathematical variables, in which the possibilities of what could have happened between the two of them in this one moment rival what, regrettably, actually does.

One dominant thread is the power of isolation (even when in the company of others). While rarely a joyful state of mind, to many of Simpson's characters, it is isolation that inspires control. And that control allows them to see what "has been hiding [. . .] in plain sight":

Earlier, when he was trying to force himself not to watch this woman, he would focus on a line of trees, backlit by the setting sun, on the far side of the lake. The trees were just a few hundred yards away, and he could see white spots filling one of the tree's branches. He'd thought the spots were only gaps in the tree's leaves, but he couldn't understand why those gaps didn't orange and pink when the sun was setting, when the sky all around the tree was changing color, deepening. After he'd forgotten about the spots in the tree for a while, he looked at them again, and one of them started moving. Then another one moved, and another. In just moments, dozens of large white birds erupted from the tree. They flew up into the air, circling, and then settled again.

As a result, what is revealed on the outside also reveals what is on the inside:

The boy is imagining a quickly destroyed world—water rising up out of the oceans, insects and birds falling from the sky, each and every human being's skin bubbling like milk in a pan on the stove and then turning to paste and dripping from their bones—when he hears the sound again. It's human, he realizes this time. It's a voice. It has just said, "You."

Let x, now that you have committed to the story, equal the moment that makes the story an unforgettable, rewarding thing: when the narrator sees the white birds in "The Woodlands"; or when the Number One Draft Pick in "Potential," on the night he has to decide whether to enter the major league draft, stays up late making meringue with his father and wishes for both outcomes at once—a perfect dessert and a ruined dessert; or when the boy in "You Would've Counted Yourself Lucky" is allowed to touch the skin graft scars on the neighbor girl's calf, massaging the divot that "feels smooth in a way that skin shouldn't." These are moments of both action and inaction, moments which recur throughout Tell Everyone I Said Hi, and which are the results of isolation breeding control and that control cultivating a realization of self. Through this realization, many characters are finally presented with a decision that their stories' first lines set in motion. Some make it, some don't. But it's not necessarily the action or inaction that's important; what's most worth noting is the risk that Simpson takes in bringing his characters to the edge. He forces them to examine their options deeply and honestly. This is sentimentality in full exposé.

In Mary Ruefle's "On Sentimentality," she breaks down that term into a forgiving dichotomy as well as a corrupted conflation. She says that to be sentimental is both "to feel" and "to think" (the sen of sensuous and the mental of the mind). It used to be a highly regarded quality: "that of possessing the most refined aesthetic emotion, exhibiting exquisite taste, expressing love but also intellectual idealism." She claims the perversion of the term came about when "sentimentality" tipped toward the emotional side of the definition and, inevitably, started wearing the deep blue cape of "nostalgia." Tell Everyone I Said Hi does not for one moment dip its toes into that narcissistic pool. Instead, it stays true to this old, literal, and much more constructive definition. Each of the stories' characters thinks and feels. And it's what they do with those thoughts and feelings—the x they add up to—that makes them so compelling.

Let x now equal the last lines of every story in Simpson's Tell Everyone I Said Hi. I won't spoil them for you. I will leave them as the unknowns they deserve to be—for now. Just rest assured that the you who began the story will not be the same you who finishes it. Instead, I will quote the Austrian writer Karl Kraus: "A writer is a man who can make a riddle [or, in this case, a variable equation] out of an answer."

 Let x equal that answer.