From one of Granta's Best of Young American Novelists comes Certain American States, whose insightful and lonely stories beg you to discover the emotional universes hiding at their cores.
The winner of a Whiting Award, Catherine Lacey brings her narrative mastery to Certain American States, her first collection of short stories. As with her acclaimed novels Nobody Is Ever Missing and The Answers, she gives life to a group of subtly complex, instantly memorable characters whose searches for love, struggles with grief, and tentative journeys into the minutiae of the human condition are simultaneously gripping and devastating.
The characters in Certain American States are continually coming to terms with their place in the world, and how to adapt to that place, before change inevitably returns. A woman leaves her dead husband's clothing on the street, only for it to reappear on the body of a stranger; a man reads his ex-wife's short story and neurotically contemplates whether it is about him; a young woman whose Texan mother insists on moving to New York City with her has her daily attempts to get over a family tragedy interrupted by a mute stranger showing her incoherent messages on his phone. These are stories of breakups, abandonment, and strained family ties; dead brothers and distant surrogate fathers; loneliness, happenstance, starting over, and learning to let go. Lacey's elegiac and inspired prose is at its full power in this collection, further establishing her as one of the singular literary voices of her generation.
Release date: August 13, 2019
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Print pages: 208
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Certain American States
He had wanted to make sure she wouldn’t write about him, but he knew he couldn’t ask her outright not to write about him, since he was sure such a question would set off a lecture about how he was not within his rights to put restrictions on her work, and she might even tease him for being narcissistic enough believe that she was planning to write about him, and he would take issue with that word—narcissistic—a diagnosis she was well aware that he’d often feared his friends and acquaintances might have been, all along, privately giving him—and he would insist it was merely practical, not narcissistic, to assume that she, his ex-wife, whose last two books had contained many arguably autobiographical details, might choose to include some or many details that may appear, to some, to have been lifted from their complicated years together and their not exactly undramatic ending, but she would probably respond to this by saying it was ridiculous and childish of him to accuse her of writing autobiography—especially since he knew how much trouble such accusations had caused her in the past—and even if she did end up writing something that contained some or many details that echoed her life (as every writer did or had done at some point or sometimes constantly), she knew that he knew that she was not interested in writing memoir, and she knew that he knew that she was, as a reader and a writer, only interested in work that used the tangibility of character and plot as a method to elucidate intangible ideas, not to record a personal history, and even if she did write a character that somewhat resembled him she could never really write about him, the truest and realest him, because there was no such thing as an immovable, constant self, and even if there were such a thing she certainly couldn’t claim she knew his, or if she did it was far too abstract to put into words, and anyway he had always seemed either incapable or indifferent to being emotionally vulnerable with her and even after all their years together she was still baffled and deeply hurt by the sudden revelation of his secret cruelty and the damage he had been capable of inflicting on her, so of course she wasn’t going to write about him because she had clearly never known him—and no matter how many times he would try to interrupt this tirade (which would have, all the while, been increasing in speed and volume) he would not be able to speak loudly or forcefully enough to correct her original misunderstanding of what he had said (of course he didn’t think that she wrote autobiography), but by the time she had finished her speech he would be too tired to say anything else, and his being too tired to make his case would be the equivalent of raising a white flag, a submission that might later double as his waiving any right to be dismayed by the inclusion of some phrase or plot element or character in her next work that he might recognize, whether narcissistically or correctly, as being based on something he had said or done or been.
So he never directly asked her not to write about him, as he estimated it would have caused more problems than it could have possibly assuaged, yet he felt unable to stop craving some sort of assurance that she would not write about him, or at least that she would not write about him in a way that was immediately recognizable, but the longer he dwelled on it and the more he talked about it in therapy and the more he talked about it in his head to the imagined company of his therapist for the rest of the week, the more he realized that part of his desire to make sure that she would not write about him was an even stronger desire for her to write about him constantly, a desire for her to feel his absence so profoundly that she was forced—like a child—to pathetically create a simulacrum of him and to spend so many years with that simulacrum that she would write one of those thousand-page tomes she’d claimed she’d never write, a book that fictively continued the relationship that she’d left—because regardless of whatever she believed about him really leaving her before she officially left him, she had been the one to technically and officially leave him—and in this book, perhaps a love story set in a lesser-known World War Two combat zone, her fictionalized equivalent would be a flawed, sentimental antiheroine and his fictionalized equivalent would be the sometimes misunderstood but ultimately valiant moral compass of the novel, and she would personally mail him a copy of the galley and just as he opened it to the dedication page to see his initials, he would receive a phone call telling him that his ex-wife had mysteriously and quickly succumbed to a rare but completely painless disease—as he didn’t fantasize about her suffering, just her immediate death—and fresh with this news he would read her last novel, and in it he would see how she had finally admitted to being wrong about leaving him, and even if he had somehow misinterpreted the work—as she had often accused him of doing when he read drafts of her stories while they were together—this time she wouldn’t be there to argue. This time he would be right and that would be the end of the story.
But she did not write about him and she did not die and he was often reminded of her not being dead when the mail came. Traffic and parking violations. Credit card offers and furniture catalogs. He would open the tickets sometimes, examine the surveillance photograph of her car running a red light, in order to be bolstered, to feel a little superior before calling her to ask, yet again, to make sure she had changed her car registration address, a task she said she’d completed months ago but clearly had not. But when he called she just said she was sorry, that she thought she had already changed the address and maybe it just took some time in the system and anyway he didn’t need to tell her about the tickets because they were all linked to an app on her phone—just as everything in her life, it seemed, was linked to an app on her phone—so he could just throw the tickets and everything else away, just rip them up and throw them out, and he did this for a while until he realized that if he just kept throwing out the mail from people or entities that believed his ex-wife still lived at this address, then he might just keep receiving her mail for years, and he would probably lose hours of his life to receiving, ripping, and recycling her mail. So he began to write RETURN TO SENDER: NO SUCH ADDRESSEE in large black letters on every envelope and leaving them out for the carrier to take them back to wherever they’d come from and this did seem to solve the problem, though the catalogs and credit card offers continued to come, addressed to her but followed, uncertainly, with Or Current Resident.
He did continue to sometimes partially read the magazines—a few she’d written for and a few in which she’d aspired to publish. After peeling off and discarding the address label he’d bring an issue along for his commute to the university or let several of them stack up on the coffee table, and once the backlog was too large, he first recycled the magazines in which she had previously published, often without even looking much at them, not wanting to stumble across her byline, or worse, to catch himself seeking it out. He never expected to see her name in an issue of one of the magazines in which she’d never published, an expectation that had become so firmly rooted that he almost did not recognize her name beside a short story titled “It Wasn’t,” a title that, he smirked to himself, wasn’t very good. He put the magazine down—he would, he thought, not read the story, not put himself through it—and he even went so far as to place the magazine into the recycling bin, but he felt immediately guilty for not being happy for her, as there was really no reason not to be happy that his ex-wife had found some success, no matter how ultimately inconsequential it was. So he let himself read the first sentence—
It wasn’t the day he told her he was leaving that was the most painful, and it wasn’t the day he moved out, or the day he re-moved out after half-moving back in, and it wasn’t even the day they filed their paperwork together at the same courthouse where they had some years before—full of hope and endorphins—turned from two people who cared for each other to a single legal entity, and it wasn’t that evening walk in the park that Gregory, a friend of his she believed was also a friend of hers, did not return her wave and abruptly took a left turn to avoid her path, and it wasn’t even the day she got a string of texts from her soon-to-be former and grossly misinformed mother-in-law that alternated between passive-aggressive sorrow and outright rage, and it wasn’t even that overcast Saturday morning when there had been a fire in the apartment building where she was renting after selling her house, and she had been shivering on the sidewalk across the street with her bed’s quilt still wrapped around her shoulders and she realized she had no one to call but him and when he answered despite the early hour she briefly wondered if their months of separation had changed them enough that they might be good for each other again, but as she was telling him that she was standing barefoot in the cold street and had no place to go, she heard a woman’s voice saying something in the muffled background of whatever his life was now, a life she knew increasingly less about, and just then her super came out of the building and the fire alarm stopped and the super told the weary tenants waiting in the street that there was no fire, false alarm, so sorry, no big deal, go back inside, go back to sleep.
It was a long sentence—really, way too long and for no apparent reason—and he remembered she’d once confessed to him that even though these long sentences came naturally to her, and even though they’d been approved by her agent and other writers and editors and critics, she sometimes wondered if they weren’t a crutch or a limitation, though they did create a sort of momentum that she liked and perhaps there was something pleasantly flamboyant about how sprawling and nearly baroque they could become, and she’d said that Ursula K. Le Guin once wrote that Ernest Hemingway would have rather died than have syntax, and she liked that, and she liked her syntax, but she liked Hemingway too, and though she was confident in her work she also doubted she had the nerve or ability to write those sorts of bullet sentences, those quick little school-of-fish sentences, and shouldn’t a decent writer be able to choose a technique rather than have a predetermined technique that pushed her around? But perhaps all this sprawling was, she’d told him, the living heart of her work and she shouldn’t question it, as it seemed to be serving her just fine for now, but she did still wonder if it was a limitation, a gimmick, and now here it was, her first story in this magazine she’d always wanted to be in and perhaps he was the only one who knew that she may have suspected herself to be leaning on a crutch.
Even that wasn’t the most painful moment. No. The most painful thing in this series of painful things would come later, long after she’d stopped bracing.
A little dramatic, he thought. Hyperbolic. Whiny. Certainly no Hemingway. He put the magazine down. At least it wasn’t directly or clearly about him. For one thing, they hadn’t divorced at the same place at which they’d married and none of their mutual friends would do something so rude as avoid her in public and his mother didn’t even have a cell phone and there had not yet been, unfortunately, another woman’s voice softening the hard edges of the apartment in which he now lived. In fact, she had been the one who’d jumped immediately into another relationship and he was the one who’d sometimes heard another voice in the background when he’d called about her traffic violations. He picked up the magazine again, started the next sentence—another long one—but put it down. He wanted to be happy for her, but the truth of it, he felt, was that no matter how shitty he may have been to her, she had been much shittier to him during their separation and divorce and he just couldn’t be happy for someone who had given up on him so quickly, after he’d only done and later confessed to doing this one terrible but totally human thing. It all made him feel carsick, or as if he’d just gotten off a cheap carnival ride, and how was it that nearly a decade could happen so quickly and in the end all you had to show for it was a stack of misdelivered mail?
He decided to skim the rest, just to see if he needed to actually read it, but skimming became reading and soon he was too far into the story to turn back. And though he’d first thought that this story had nothing to do with him, it slowly seemed that perhaps all she had done was taken the facts of their relationship, changed the setting, and reversed the genders—made the man the one to leave, made the woman the one who was left—and for a moment he actually laughed aloud to the empty room. He was in on it, in a way, and she was nudging him, calling up a little joke they’d had about how she was his husband and he was her wife, since she was always hungry and wanting sex and he did all the ironing and had a more elaborate skin-care regimen.
And when he left town—even for a weekend, or a one-night business trip—he would return to their house (her house that had become, technically, their house, a house to which she still referred sometimes as “my house,” though she corrected herself when in his company and let the error stand when she was not), when he returned to their house (a house she’d bought only months before they met and a year before he moved in and began paying half the mortgage and which, over the course of seven years, he had often offered to pay in full when her income was unsteady), when he returned to their home after a short trip away, she had, each time and without fail, moved most of his things to more discreet locations—the books on the nightstand back to their alphabetized spots on the shelves; the toiletries in the shower hidden beneath the sink; his faucet-side toothbrush placed in a cup in the medicine cabinet; a pair of shoes beside the door stowed in the closet—as if his absence had made his evidence upsetting, as if to be reminded of his feet and teeth and hair while they were elsewhere felt somehow perverse.
Well, yes, he did remember at least once moving her shoes from the living room to the closet while she was away, an incident that sparked their first serious fight, which ended with her storming out and being gone for half the night, coming home near dawn, at first not telling him where she’d been, then confessing that she’d just been at that diner on Flatbush, drinking bad coffee and writing something she was sure was terrible, but by the next morning they had the good sense to make fun of this fight, both of them accepting some weight of the blame so it could be lifted, though perhaps neither of them actually believed they’d been in the wrong. In the story, however, there was no fight or storming out, just some silent begrudging during which the wife and husband had syntactically complicated thoughts about the other. As he turned a page in the magazine, a postcard addressed to her fell out. It was an image of the Eiffel Tower, the word Paris printed over it in tacky red script.
Can you believe how much time is gone since Liège? Thinking of it these days. Got this address from your old roommate. Are you still here? Are you still there? I heard you are a married woman now. I miss you very much.
Jean Marcel … Jean Marcel. In seven years she had never mentioned any Jean Marcel and it certainly wasn’t from lack of her telling him about her past. She lived in a near-permanent state of nostalgia, saudade—a real affliction—and she’d told him everything, more than he ever wanted to know about past lovers, past travels, her seemingly endless, darling past. But no Jean Marcel.
Jean Marcel, he said, staring at the Eiffel Tower, almost expecting her to answer him from the other room, and as he stared at the postcard, he thought of that drawing of the Eiffel Tower that had circulated online after the nightclub shooting—and how sad that a drawing designed for international social-media grief had replaced any actual memory he had of the one time he had visited the Eiffel Tower himself—and at the same time he was thinking of the afternoon that half of New York was reading the breaking news of the attack on their phones and he’d come home to find his then wife crying facedown on the floor, hysterical—there was no word for it but hysterical—and once she’d calmed down enough to ask him if he’d heard about Paris (though there was no mention, even then, of any Jean Marcel), he had not understood why she could be so deeply moved by this specific act of horrific violence and not horrified when the same thing or worse things happened in cities she had, perhaps, never visited. Vacation-based hysteria, he had named it, though he never said the phrase to her, as this was far enough into their relationship that he knew how to avoid the land mines between them.
But perhaps it had all been much simpler. Her hysteria hadn’t been, generally, about Paris—it had been about this Jean Marcel character, specifically. His wife was still in love with or had been, then, still in love with someone he had never even heard of, and it was only after finding out there was a possibility that her long-lost darling Jean Marcel had been gunned down that evening in Paris that she experienced, viscerally, how large her feelings were for him.
He picked up his phone and called her and immediately asked, So that’s why you were so upset about Paris? This guy? And she said, So you read it? And he said, Well, yeah—do you mean the story? And she said, What else would I be talking about?
Well, actually I’m still reading it, but—
I was just reading it, but I wanted to ask you—
I’m not talking to you about it until you’ve read the whole thing, she said, and hung up.
He flipped through the remaining pages of the story, taking note of the sentences that spanned a whole column, hulking blocks of grammatically suspect text so rarely relieved by proper punctuation. Well, he wasn’t going to read the whole thing, on command, just because she said so. He didn’t have to do that anymore. He closed the magazine, looked at the cover image and headlines, picked up his phone to look up their circulation numbers, estimated what an advertisement would cost, wondered what she had been paid, and tried to find some information on what a person might be paid for such a story, but while he was scrolling through a three-year-old thread on a messaging board in which several avatars made speculations about what they estimated to be this magazine’s going rate for short fiction and whether it would change based on the relative fame or obscurity of the author, his phone rang and his ex-wife’s name appeared on the screen, as if she could still tell—no matter how far away she was—that he was dicking around instead of reading.
I’m not done yet, he said to her.
But I just wanted to say something first. The man in the story, the writer, he’s not supposed to be you or me. He’s no one. He’s an idea. And the same for the woman. She’s a bunch of words. She’s not a person. Okay?
So whatever you want to ask me about after you’re done with it, it has nothing to do with you and me. Do you understand?
He threw the phone to the other side of the couch and kept reading about this couple who live in a college town in Kansas (a state he was sure she’d never even visited) and the guy is a novelist and professor (typical) and the woman runs a dog kennel (random) and the woman only seems capable of reacting emotionally to things that happen to the dogs in her kennel or people she’s never met, and the farther away a tragedy occurred from her the more upset she could become, a condition that prevents her, after she learns of a terrorist attack in a nightclub in Paris, from even being able to get out of bed, so the novelist has to use one of his few days off from teaching to care for all the dogs in the kennel in their backyard, while his soon-to-be ex-wife weeps in bed all day, and in between taking care of the dogs the man is dashing back to his office to try to write this story about a young Frenchman who is attacked one night on a narrow street somewhere in Belgium and as he begins to fight off his attacker he is filled with adrenaline and rage he’s unable to rein in and he stomps his attacker’s head in with such force that the attacker either passes out or dies—and the writer in the story relished the seeming inaccuracy and ambiguity of the Frenchman’s memory—and the Frenchman flees the scene, splattered in his own and someone else’s blood, and he tells no one until he tells his American girlfriend some weeks later and the young woman is so horrified that she immediately packs her bags and goes to the airport and as she boards the plane she is overcome with doubt over whether she has done the right thing in leaving him. And when the novelist is finished writing this story within a story he goes to his bedroom to see that his wife has finally gotten up and is getting dressed.
So your hysteria has passed, I see.
Hysteria? she asked. How could you possibly use such a word?
Okay, your … sadness, your very profound and debilitating sadness.
But you said … hysteria.
Well, you were in hysterics, he said.
I was being hysterical?
He paused. Well. Yes. In fact, you were being hysterical.
She knew there was something she should say, something about the patriarchal origins of the word hysteria and all of its iterations, something about Freud, something about the very obvious disregard he had for women and her suspicion that deep down—and not even that deeply, it sometimes seemed—he believed that men were humanity’s default and women were a sort of unpalatable deviation.
But she said, Forget it, and they did.
But after that scene the story took some weird stylistic turns and suddenly the woman is confessing to her husband that not only does she allow any dog in the kennel to lick her in the mouth, but she also had a special connection to one of the dogs that stayed with them somewhat regularly—Ross, the dog’s name was Ross—and once she had let Ross hump her for long enough that she found she was getting some sort of pleasure from it as well, and after she told her husband this he broke out in laughter, sure that she was kidding and what a raunchy sense of humor she had. In fact, the wife continued, she was not kidding and in fact it had been happening with some regularity for the past few months and she had no desire to stop this behavior, she just thought that he, as her husband, should know.
And this begins a strange fight between the couple that ultimately dissolves their marriage and at some point in the scene the gate in the backyard comes unlatched and all the kept dogs start running wildly around the neighborhood and from there the narration moves more associatively and nonlinearly through the wife/ex-wife’s mind, and it turns out that she’d actually been lying to her husband/ex-husband about her special connection to Ross, but the husband, in tears, ends up confessing to having had an actual affair with one of his graduate students the previous year, an affair he had ended, something he wasn’t proud of, but she, still unable to feel upset by her husband’s actually betraying her, tells him it doesn’t matter and she was going to give him three days to get out of the house. The story ended—
She went outside, whistled once, and all the dogs returned.
He picked up the phone to call her, even though he was pretty deeply confused by the ending since the story began seeming like it was about a woman who had been left by her husband, but it ended up being about a woman who lied to her husband about dry humping a dog, and what could that even mean anyway, and as the phone rang he realized he really did not want to talk to his ex-wife about any of this, and when his call went to voice mail—I can’t answer the phone right now, so please leave a message—that meek little greeting he remembered overhearing her record several years ago, and as he tried to recall that bleached-out memory, all the details gone, he realized the tone had already toned and whether he said anything or not, he was already leaving a message.
Copyright © 2018 by Catherine Lacey
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