Wait Till You See Me Dance

By Deb Olin Unferth


March 2017

Reviewed by Emily Alex


Quick, unpredictable and grimly charismatic, Deb Olin Unferth's most recent story collection carries postmodernism into an intimate space, where art and artifice are inseparable from social reality. Unferth's prose calls to mind the narrative dexterity of postmodern forerunners like Woolf and Barthelme; even as it enacts, on a story-level, the fiction-steeped consciousness famously described by David Foster Wallace in "E Unibus Pluram," his 1993 essay on the relationship between mass media and the contemporary literary aesthetic. There Wallace posits that metafiction is less an artistic affectation than it is a psychological a priori in a society defined by postmodern self-conscious irony. In Wait Till You See Me Dance, metanarrative, achronology, contradictions, and discursive volatility appear as manifestations of perception in just such a world—where the overworked, lovelorn, and disillusioned find themselves exiled, and the sentence is life.

Unferth's characters are often unnamed—reduced to a pronoun, a function, a family status, or a cultural allusion: "the mothers," "the office assistant," Mary from It's a Wonderful Life, "the Vice President of Pretzels." This depersonalization is a unifying trait of the otherwise heterogeneous assemblage, which includes both short stories and flash fiction; and it is not merely (or not solely) a result of narrative distance or brevity, but rather a commentary on the characters' self-estrangement, in the Marxist sense. The image of the oppressive, self-serving institution is one that pervades Unferth's collection: from the pretzel factory "overrun with vice presidents," where none can account for a change in their staple product, to the university in the title story, which systematically admits students it cannot serve—"not out of generosity," the narrator observes, "but [rather] sheer incompetence."

This narrator, an adjunct professor, is both a product and a mechanism of the university system which she finds herself "slotted" into. On the one hand, she chafes at the fact that her colleagues so strongly associate her with a filmic character that they can no longer recall her actual name. On the other hand, she takes refuge in her anonymity and lack of agency vis-à-vis her students—parroting the official li(n)e with regard to their all-important placement exam:

The test is graded by outside sources.
The test is graded by outside sources.
The test is graded by outside sources.

In this story and others, this infinite passing of the bureaucratic buck preserves a dehumanizing, Kafkaesque hierarchy, wherein the individual's fate at every level is more a consequence of algorithm and accident than willful action.

In "Wait Till You See Me Dance," the narrator is endowed with an ability to predict when other people will die—yet despite this mystical power, she appears to regard her futility as a foregone conclusion:

Nothing would be different if I weren't around. I haven't caused anything, good or bad . . . it's likely that if I hadn't been born, my mother would have had a different baby around the same time and that baby would have been somewhat like me or mostly like me and would have made similar choices, probably the very same ones, and she would be here right now instead of me, feeling the things that I feel in my stead.

In many of these stories, a character's baseline disaffection is troubled by the emergence of a pivotal (if transient) awakening. In the case of the title story's narrator, it's the moment she recognizes that a small action on her part might in fact be a matter of life or death for a talented yet at-risk student. The character seizes upon this opportunity for decisive action. Her motivation, she specifies, derives more from existential need than good will: "It may seem like I was being heroic . . . but the truth is I was just grateful to be feeling something."

Unferth's stories hinge vitally on these glimmers of hope—for meaningful action, for change, for self-transformation—and while her characters are sometimes granted a heroic role (as in the title story), the collection as a whole reinforces the view that such opportunities are ultimately flukes in an otherwise indifferent system. Whether this is cause for despair or wonderment is probably more a function of the reader's own position on the spectrum from nihilism to optimism; however, Unferth goes to great lengths to demonstrate that these passions are most often futile and already-fading.

Unferth is interested in the implications this has for love—romantic and otherwise. In "Mr. Simmons Takes a Prisoner," a father comes to recognize that his role in the family unit is non-essential. To cope with this, he strikes up a proxy relationship with an inmate at a women's prison. However, the trajectory of this father-daughter relationship is entirely charted in advance, and it tracks the very same course as his relationship with his own daughters—from dependence to independence, integrality to dispensability: a cycle that only reinforces the character's essential impotence. In "Decorate, Decorate," we find this same progression in miniature. A woman's joy at obtaining a "decoration" is immediately overtaken by doubt: "Is this all there is? she wonders . . . What if this decoration stops working or goes away someplace and never comes back? Then where will she be? She needs another . . ." In "Open Water," the protagonist possesses more foresight: she recognizes the arc her new relationship will trace. She can predict in great detail how everything will sour; and yet, this self-awareness makes no difference. The story ends on a supreme note of resignation: with the "sick feeling of an ending inside her," she is nonetheless "willing to try."

The moments of vitality these characters experience, which bring them (back) into relation with their own humanity, are most often painful ones, as if to suggest that a capacity for suffering is the very crux of selfhood. In one of the collection's finest pieces, "Voltaire Night," a creative writing instructor gathers her students at a bar to recount their worst moments. In the context of this bar game, to win is to have lost. What individuates the participants is the trauma they have endured. Suffering becomes a form of capital, as it does also in the flash piece "The Applicant," where a creative writing committee accepts a student from a war-torn country under the assumption that he will use this first-hand material to write compelling stories.

The association of trauma with drama is carried to an even greater extreme in "The First Full Thought of Her Life." In this story, a thoroughly typical family on a banal day trip is distinguished from the mobs of all-but interchangeable families by virtue of the fact that a gun happens to be aimed at their daughter. The potential impending central trauma pressurizes the narrative to the point of bursting. Much like Coover's "The Babysitter," the story's structure becomes fragmented into a series of conflicting outcomes. Does he shoot? Does he not shoot? Like Coover's story, this one functions as an indictment of the reader and the reader's desire for spectacle, as if the desire to witness a fictional atrocity were a form of complicity.

The fact that the collection shares its title with one of the most exceptional stories in the collection, in which the phrase "Wait till you see me dance" also appears as one of the most consequential lines, is worthy of remark, given how extensively Unferth draws upon the concepts of recursion and self-reference. The most overt example is "Voltaire Night," where storytelling is the subject of the story; however, this is also characteristic of Unferth's style more broadly. The universe of Unferth's fiction is one overpopulated with story, such that the story of a school building or a secondary character often seems poised to derail the dominant narrative. To bear witness to this reality is to be crushed by it.

The combination of this maximalist sensibility with the compression of flash fiction is one of the great successes and delights of this collection, which is just as finely constructed on a macro-level as it is on a micro-level. Alongside the longer, plot-driven stories, the flash pieces read as threads of the same thematic fiber. One gets the sense that these glimpses—dialogues, vignettes, lists—could be associated with any one of the focal characters, or with the author herself. This marriage of coherence and dislocation lends a unique novelistic quality to the collection that distinguishes it from Barthelme's Stories or Coover's Pricksongs and Descants—a novel form that seems conceptually apropos, because if we take it to be the case that identity is a contrivance, then character most certainly is.