This American Life, over the course of its long existence, must sometimes have to stretch for content—especially when they incorporate fiction into the program. Though my presence in this particular magazine (especially in the guise of a book reviewer) may suggest that my ears perk up whenever Ira Glass introduces a short story, I am usually disappointed when fiction rears its artificial head on the radio. Too often the story is long and of little relation to the episode’s theme, or whimsically dull, or serving only to remind us that BJ Novak has a book out. Certainly J. Robert Lennon’s “The Accursed Items” fits one or two of those categories; I remember my wife changing the station after Lennon listed a few of these items at the end of a TAL episode about, well, I don’t remember what. It’s a list story that describes a number of things and what gives them their accursedness. It was originally published, as many lists are, on McSweeney’s.
But that partial list tucked itself away in my memory for a few reasons: the melancholy and menace Lennon uses to energize mundane objects, the tendency of list stories to smell more of gimmickry than content (this one didn’t), the fact that I wanted to hear the rest of it.
I’m glad I didn’t, though, because reading the story as it appears in Lennon’s new collection See You in Paradise (Graywolf) achieved what list stories tend not to. It becomes, in its repetition and economic approach to describing everyday things and the decisions and consequences surrounding them, genuinely moving. All Hemingway icebergs and baby shoes, each object’s narrative does more than suggest sadness, lost opportunities, or irrevocably bad decisions; they embody them. An example:
A Minnie Mouse doll you found by the roadside and brought home, intending to run it through the washer and give it to your infant son, but which looked no less forlorn after washing and was abandoned on a basement shelf, only to be found by your son eight years later and mistaken for a once-loved toy that he had himself forsaken, leading to his first real experience of guilt and shame.
Guilt and shame reoccur throughout See You in Paradise. Whether Lennon approaches his themes through ordinary objects or ordinary people, the stories are populated with characters (most of them young-to-middle-aged men) who act against their own interests. Whether bowing to some unseen societal pressure or more generally reacting to their own misgiven anxieties, they give in to doing the wrong things, usually without putting up much of an existential, man-v-himself kind of fight. Their guilt is ineffable and inevitable, and it makes them sympathetic. It is born of an American upbringing of convenience and circumstance.
There are no men here like Eric Loesch, the narrator of Lennon’s 2010 novel Castle, a military man who knows how to fix up a cabin and thrive in the woods. Instead there are editors and unsure family men who fall into extraordinary situations, characters who find themselves in the middle of Twilight Zone episodes armed with understated humor and bemusement. Rather than fight the supernatural, they shrug and adjust to the new rules their worlds have thrust upon them.
The Twilight Zone comparison is not meant to be disparaging. Actually, it seems that most of the weird stuff in these stories happens in full-on daylight. Though many of these stories are horrific on the surface, they’re often funny, and rarely focus on the crazy things as much they focus on character. Lennon sneaks elements of horror and fantasy in under a shroud of mundane matter-of-factness.
Which is a good thing, since the tropes in many of these stories are nothing particularly new. There are zombies (“Dan the Zombie), magic portals (“The Portal”), murderous restaurateurs (“A Stormy Evening at the Buck Snort Restaurant”). In “The Wraith,” Carl grapples, poorly, with the personified specter of his wife Lurene’s depression. The way to end this struggle? Carl gives in to its sexual advances. The resulting pregnancy, however, is far more frightening than the scarred and damaged creature his wife leaves behind on her way to work every day. It’s all the horror and anxiety of Rosemary’s Baby, but without the Satan stuff. The most devilish character is George W. Bush, whose image must be cut out of all the newspapers, as if his face caused Lurene’s depression in the first place.
Other stories work as parables of family anxiety, as well. Opener “The Portal” introduces Lennon’s ability to characterize through quick bits of information. While the novelty and fun of finding a transdimensional portal in the backyard might bring other families together, the narrator is unable to more than watch his own grow apart:
The kids are older now and don’t spend so much time wandering around in the woods and the clearing the way they used to—Luan is all about the boys these days, and you can’t get Chester’s mind away from the Xbox for more than five minutes—and Gretchen and I hardly ever even look in that direction. I think one time last summer we got a little drunk and sneaked out there to have sex under the crabapple tree, but weeds and stones kept poking up through the blanket and the bugs were eating us alive, so we gave up, came back inside and did it in the bed like normal people.
Sex is another way of grappling with the odd balance of mundane and extraordinary that permeates the stories in See You in Paradise. To a couple unable to conceive in “No Life,” the book’s only New Yorker story (in subject and style as well as publication history), sex “seem[s] absurd and implausible, like Twister.” But sex, like the other magical things in this book, can’t fix what is already broken. Lennon packs humor and devastation here: “Sex. They call it ‘it.’ ‘We should do it.’ Neither ever refuses, no matter how unappealing the prospect, because then there would be somebody to blame for their never doing it anymore.”
Lennon’s stories in this collection are varied, daring to experiment in small ways, positioning the bizarre and impossible with the tragedy and black humor. But what stays with you after the stories are all finished is Lennon’s deft hand at capturing truth, that big “T” emotional Truth. The irresponsible husband in “No Life,” arrested in his post-collegiate development, can’t stop himself from making bad jokes when he talks to people. When he tells a man he has no friends, he’s “trying to be funny, but suddenly this doesn’t seem funny at all. Perhaps because it is true.” That’s what sticks with the reader. Perhaps that’s why “The Accursed Items” is among the most resonant of the stories in this collection. It is entirely suggestive of story, of character, of action in each entry, and though its brevity creates a certain distance, what’s left is a lasting impression, one that works whether read in a book or heard on the radio.
Andrew Howard's work has appeared/will appear in Southwestern American Literature, Kaliedotrope, and Bluestem, and has been shortlisted for the Carve Short Story Prize. He currently lives and teaches in Washington, DC.