Under the Microscope
It’s not easy to make domestic realism captivating. Some writers eschew chintzy “gimmicks” like plot, sensationalism, and quirky characterization to the point that the stories themselves become tastefully dull. Fortunately, there are no tastefully dull stories in Catapult, Emily Fridlund’s debut short story collection. And there are good reasons why Ben Marcus selected Catapult for the 2015 Mary McCarthy Prize: Fridlund writes exceptional character-driven fiction, and her stories bristle with a menacing domestic intensity that few writers can capture. In “Expecting,” a single father watches his underachieving son Kyle and Kyle’s girlfriend Meg prepare for the arrival of their child. With a simple detail, Fridlund both introduces a character and sets the tone for the story: “[Meg] fills the freezer with cans of Diet Dr. Pepper that bulge threateningly—aluminum balloons—and burst.” Fridlund also showcases an uncanny ability to craft enticing openers. Take, for instance, Lynn’s reflection on her own slippery accent in the opening paragraph of “Gimme Shelter,” a vignetted tale of sibling estrangement and reunion: “It pleased her to have her words come out of her mouth with no fixed address, as if the English she spoke was soft and malleable.” I find myself compelled to return to such lines; they aren’t quite lyrical—whatever we mean by that—but they also don’t fall into the “clean and flavorless” camp that we sometimes associate with certain large magazines.
Though Fridlund’s characters are flawed in compelling ways, they rarely indulge in cynicism. To be sure, Fridlund’s cast participates in dysfunctional romantic relationships, but at heart, they almost always want to experience intense human connections, even if they don’t know how to go about them. In “Marco Polo,” for instance, protagonist Mason frets over his girlfriend A’s inability to fall asleep beside him in bed (the preoccupation with who falls asleep first spans multiple stories, in fact). Mason’s despair reaches pathological proportions, so that A’s insomnia becomes tantamount to sexual infidelity. He obsesses over the possibility that while he sleeps, she invites a lover into their house: “He fucks her on the floor and leaves before she’s through.” Fridlund’s characters often have the best intentions, but they have a curious way of getting in the way of themselves. In the title story, for instance, two mismatched teenagers explore their awakening sexual desires while also designing a time machine. Fridlund tracks their ambitions with careful dignity. Rather than making a farce of the whole time machine shtick, Fridlund reveals the young female narrator and Noah growing together, then growing apart. Though the story is clearly informed by some research (“I’ve been considering cosmological horizons as an important part of the Big Bang space-time, which undermines our understanding of what can be observed in the past”), we never get lost in obscure theorems. Instead, I’m surprised to find myself rooting for the possibility of two teenagers engineering time travel, all of which indicates that Fridlund has succeeded in bottling the story’s lightning. I’m all too happy to suspend my disbelief—partway, at any rate.
Arguably, domestic realism functions best when there’s an implacable menace lurking beyond the well-kempt hedges. In “One You Run From. The Other You Fight,” Nora and Sage get off on crashing private celebrations they haven’t been invited to. Nora recognizes that she and Sage might be compensating for a lack of fulfillment in their own lives: “They’d been together for nine years, and [Nora] knew how much of their relationship depended on shared contempt.” Suffice it to say that Fridlund knows how to render those sentiments that fire in the dark corners of our brains—the zones that we try not to talk about. This is one of the reasons why, on the line level, Fridlund’s writing sticks to the reader’s mind like a hitchhiker seed; its weight goes undetected at first. Only later do we experience the slight irritation. In Fridlund’s case, it’s a good kind of irritation—the kind that we seek out when we pick up a work of fiction.
I’m reminded of that famous opening shot in Lynch’s Blue Velvet where the camera moves from the innocuous trappings of an idyllic suburban neighborhood to an obscenely tight shot of a well-manicured lawn. Beneath the grassy surface, Lynch reveals an underworld teeming with insect hostility. Catapult’s stance is somewhat analogous: under the microscope, suburbia and its inhabitants lose their gloss, their cheerful pretense. In “Here. Still,” which tracks protagonist Amanda’s adulthood reconnection with Lora, a friend from childhood, Amanda notes that “Always, well-lived houses . . . made me feel swallowed up, forced by inevitable processes through someone else’s gut.” Menace doesn’t always arrive in the form of knife-wielding marauders; sometimes, it can be the nagging suspicion that we’re slowly becoming the dilapidated places we inhabit. The more profound forms of danger, as we all know, are those closest to us—those which we disavow in our day-to-day lives. Fridlund reminds us that beneath the veil, suburbia is just as perverse and unfamiliar as we feared.
header image: "microscope," university of liverpool faculty of health & life sciences / flickr