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What We’re Reading: You Have Never Been Here

2016 January 21

What We're Reading
You Have Never Been HereYou Have Never Been Here by Mary Rickert (Small Beer Press, 2015)

You Have Never Been Here is stupid good. There’s no other way to say it. This collection of short stories is at once uniform and eclectic; the stories share threads—both thematic and aesthetic—that bind them together, but each story is clearly and uniquely its own thing. The book opens with the story of a woman slowly turning into a deer, a story that begs to be metaphorized but actually thrives better without the clunkiness of questions like “But what does her turning into a deer represent?” And this is true for many of the stories in Rickert’s collection: fantasy tales that at once ask the audience to find truth in them and at the same time question the nature of that truth. Reading this stories is an experience, and it’s one everyone should have. And buoying up each story is Rickert’s unbeatable prose. This, from “Journey into the Kingdom:”

I live simply and virginally, never taking breath through a kiss. This is the vow I made, and I have kept it. Yes, some days I am weakened, and tempted to restore my vigor with such an easy solution, but instead I hold the empty cups to my face, I breathe in, I breathe everything, the breath of old men, breath of young, sweet breath, sour breath, breath of lipstick, breath of smoke. It is not, really, a way to live, but this is not, really, a life.

As is typical with short story collections, many of the works in You Have Never Been Here have seen publication before, but there is value in having them all here, together, preceding or following one another. Like pieces of art or antiquity laid along a path in a museum, these stories echo against and with one another powerfully, making the whole so much greater than the sum of its parts, and providing a great argument for reading these tales from Rickert together, in one or two ravenous sittings. Each new story feels less like a stand-alone text and more like a meditation or rumination on one of the nearly universal themes in these stories: grief, loss, death. The movement, for instance, from “Journey Into the Kingdom,” which features coastal landscapes and bittersweet narratives of the sea, to “The Shipbuilder,” which features those same landscapes, is a natural one, and it allows each story to sink deeper.

Each story in this collection is a gem, but at no point are Rickert’s skills on better display than in the novellete “The Mothers of Voorhisville,” which is an epistolary tale told (nearly completely) from the perspective of a group of mothers in a small town who all sleep with the same, hearse-driving stranger and all have the same weird, winged, sharp-toothed babies. Yes, the weird pregnancy story is a typical one, even an overused one, but in Rickert’s hands it becomes a complicated, carefully considered narrative about hanging on to what you don’t understand and losing what you do.

And beyond all that, it’s absolutely hilarious. The stories are often sad and sometimes creepy, but there are bright moments of comedy that caught me totally by surprise. In the same story (“The Mothers of Voorhisville”), one of the mothers is a woman named Tamara, who, despite having a law degree, is a writer of fantasy novels. Rickert, I’m sure, is well aware of the stigmatized and fraught place of genre fiction in the literary world, and she uses Tamara (whose voice, by the way, is the most beautiful and compelling of all the mothers) to poke back at the literary world, noting how she (Tamara) was denied access to a writing group in Voorhisville:

Later, when the stranger showed up for the writers’ workshop at Jan Morris’s house, she could not determine how he’d found out about the elitist group, known to have rejected at least one local writer on the basis of the fact she wrote fantasy.

“The Mothers of Voorhisville,” like a lot of the stories in Rickert’s book, is, on some level, about how we tell stories, how we sort out our own pasts and presents. The new story in the collection, “The Shipbuilder,” features a man named Quark returning to his hometown, one of Rickert’s signature small, coastal towns. It quickly becomes clear that Quark has told himself a story about his life that is at odds with stories others have told about his life, even if no one is wrong. In this way, the stories in You Have Never Been Here interrogate and deconstruct themselves in a way that is a total pleasure to read, especially if you’re someone interested in how the story sausage gets made.

I could go on about each of these stories. The way Rickert plays with form, always experimenting: in “Cold Fires,” she tells stories within the story, embedded narratives that, like a few of these pieces, draw on fairy tales and ricochet off one another. Or in “You Have Never Been Here,” the title story, how she messes with second person in a way that is at once creepy and fascinating. These stories stick with you after the reading, begging you to consider them further, to take another peek inside the book, to dig deeper into the characters and narrative. There’s so much to say about each one, but I’ll leave some of the mystery for you to discover on your own.

What surprisingly wonderful books have you been reading lately?

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