My nose is itchy. And I’m chewing two pieces of gum. Keep that in mind.
I am tempted to write some more about Terry Tempest Williams’s When Women Were Birds. I wrote about it already, yes, but a proper response would be a book. Or a lifetime.
Instead, I read Stuart Dybek’s Ecstatic Cahoots, a collection of fifty short stories. After reading Terry Tempest Williams, and after reading Flannery O’Connor, I found Dybek’s stories to be missing any vitality. Voice, yes, but what did it mean? What did any of it mean?
A long time ago I met Carin Besser, who, at the time, was a fiction editor at the New Yorker. She was paid by the university to read stories that had been written by the grad students and then tell us what she thought about them.
She told me to read Stuart Dybek. I took the advice seriously because she had cowritten a song named Ada that I liked. But not seriously enough to read anything by him. This year, however, FS&G released two books by him concurrently, and I finally took the advice to read Stuart Dybek.
I see why she said that. I had given her my story Rainbow Fish, which starts normally, gets strange, and then stays strange. “You gain your reader’s trust and then pull the rug out from under them,” she told me.
This is what Stuart Dybek does again and again and again. Some of the stories in this collection are weird. Some are very weird. One I read twice but I still didn’t get it.
"He wanted to imagine what the doll would feel in the time to come when she would give birth to the potato," was its last line.
I feel like I could do stories like this all of my life. But surely writing should mean something too?
But this isn’t the book’s major failing. Ecstatic Cahoots feels old, dated, even though it has been newly published. It’s a collection that could have been published in 1962. Women are prostitutes or undressed. They “give happy endings.” Men speak to each other “conspiratorially,” a description Dybek uses at least three times. There’s no internet, or 9/11, or Iraq war, or President Obama either, but its datedness comes most from its worldview.
"I wouldn’t mind selling my body if somebody’d offer to buy," Britt, a single-mom says at the beginning of the story Transaction. She continues: "It’s not an especially original female fantasy. But besides the fantasy turn-on, there’s something attractively up-front about it. A simple transaction seems honest compared to the bullshit I’ve seen that passes for a quote ‘relationship’ between men and women."
In When Women Were Birds, Terry Tempest Williams writes about Nushu script from China. “To look at the script of Nushu is to see bird tracks, crows walking deliberately down a narrow path of snow. This is the secret script of women, used for hundreds of years in the rural villages of Jiangyong.” Nushu “was a way women could speak to themselves outside of the language of men.”
Stuart Dybek firmly places the women in his stories inside the language of men.