By Tatiana Ryckman


ELJ Publications
September 2014

Reviewed by John David Harding


It would be reductive to compare the short fictions in Tatiana Ryckman's Twenty-Something to the work of Lydia Davis, but similarities do exist between the two in terms of a shared interest in the compression of a moment, a feeling, or a storyline into a very small space. Readers looking for sprawling twenty-page stories with perfectly round characters have come to the wrong place. Some stories in Twenty-Something are no longer than a paragraph while others are a page or two. Paradoxically, then, Ryckman's Twenty-Something shrinks the story's form while expanding the possibilities of short fiction. How does this work?

Twenty-Something asks the reader to reconsider what constitutes a story. Ignoring length and a traditional narrative arc, we must concentrate instead on the distillation of an idea, a brief narrative moment, or an intensely focused insight into a character's interior life. For this reason, these stories are unsettling, accessible, and satisfying in their brevity. Twenty-Something reads like a manifesto on the shortcomings (and the latent potential) of life, love, family, and short fiction.

The fifteen stories in Twenty-Something benefit from variety in content and form. Among the stories, we find character sketches, historical fiction, straightforward or fragmented narratives, and monologues. Perspectives change from story to story, vacillating between first person and third. Some contain no biographical information about the characters, including their names, making it difficult to determine whether Twenty-Something draws from a central cast of characters or whether the characters are unique to each story. Thus, theories about an overarching narrative hold little weight. It is possible, however, to link these stories together based on thematic commonalities.

Take, for example, the three narrators in "Most Days," "Fellatio," and "Twenty-Something." In "Most Days," Lacy fantasizes about living near the ocean ­– not just any ocean, but an ocean made out of kittens. Once there, she wants "to plunge into the furry waves, to disappear forever in its current." In "Fellatio," the unnamed narrator describes the deep shame experienced when he or she says "stupid things"; after saying something perceived as especially stupid, the narrator adds, "And then I wanted to die." Similarly, in "Twenty-Something," Clarice (who suffers unwanted advances from her boss) reflects both on "the ditch she's considering throwing herself into" and "on the total lack of everything as she passes from one room or moment or year to the next without perceiving that anything will ever change." Though morbid, these thoughts of death are casual enough; we might chalk them up to the angst one feels as a twenty-something who, like Clarice, is disappointed with life and "filled with an impotent anger."

We also encounter several characters for whom intimacy is a complex and troubling experience. In "Getting to Know You," the main character (called "she") has a romantic encounter with a boy who is wearing a wolf mask. Donning the mask, the boy sits beside her on the couch and playfully touches her leg. Just when he is about to remove the mask (which prominently features a "drooling mouth"), she stops him, saying, "No [. . .] It's easier this way." The narrator in "Saltines," a story about a failed relationship, explains that her boyfriend has fallen in love with two different women in the span of a week. Another variation on this recurring theme requires little explanation beyond its title: "All the Reasons I Love You, Even Though Life Is Fleeting and You'll Just Die and Rot Anyway." The main character and a male companion take turns petting each other's tongues; the narrator reminds her partner, however, that "It's not a sex thing [. . .] I just want more from you than you're giving me."

Three stories at the end of the book arguably form a deliberate sequence. The first-person narrators in "Tales from Ukraine," "The Return," and "Tetalita" might be one in the same, considering the stories' interconnected exploration of family and multinational identity. "Tales from Ukraine" comes with an instructive subtitle: "Based on My Limited Travels There, Where I Felt I Identified with People, but Never Figured Out If They Identified with Me." The story also brings a welcomed measure of lighthearted humor: "I considered moving here [to the village] to marry the neighbor boy, but then I found out he was already married. And my cousin." "The Return" focuses on the keenly felt absence of a family's matriarchal figure, Oma. Finally, the narrator of "Tetalita" closes the book with a powerful demonstration of the limits of human understanding (and fiction): "This is what I know about what it's like to be Joe:" it begins, but after the colon, the rest of the page is blank.  

Woeful and frenetic, the stories in Twenty-Something have sharp, jagged edges. Resolutions are subtle or altogether missing, but there is no shortage of conflict and whimsy. The book's cover art, a repeating wallpaper of anatomically correct hearts made out of cats, perfectly sets the mood. Even in the book's gloomier moments, there is a playful bent, a careless attitude, an effervescence. Desires and expectations are continually subverted, but the characters continue to want something more than what they already have. What's hopeful is that, in spite of it all, the characters haven't stopped trying to get what they want. Maybe as readers, we too want something more than what the widely-anthologized stories are giving us. Twenty-Something might be exactly what we need.