Certain American States
Swiftly following the success of her novels Nobody Is Ever Missing (2015) and The Answers (2017), Certain American is Catherine Lacey’s first short story collection. The title – which conjures up images of ruler-straight roads and proud aluminum declarations – is entirely appropriate. With each tale, the Mississippi-born author traverses vast expanses of US geography, skillfully guiding us through the engulfing emotional and physical landscapes of her characters.
The book’s contents, however, do not bear much relation to a roadtrip-style buddy picture. Instead, they are mapped out in terms of perplexing and occasionally painful social isolation. A character in the titular story readily claims that “the loneliness of certain American states is enough to kill a person if you look too closely”, and, though each of the twelve stories is utterly distinct, all of the author’s protagonists endure an acute sense of absence.
Lacey’s opener, ‘Violations’, playfully explores the craft and act of publishing a short story, while simultaneously introducing us to the aftermath of a divorce. Both physical and emotional absence are addressed in ‘Because You Have To’ and ‘Certain American States’, and indeed this is what steers the narrative of ‘Small Differences’. Psychological absence, meanwhile, is evident in ‘The Healing Center’, ‘Learning’ and ‘The Four Immeasurables and Twenty New Immeasurables’. ‘Family Physics’ provides a dramatic vanishing act via the well-established North American tradition of a long, unspecific drive west, while ‘The Grand Claremont Hotel’ appears to offer its protagonist a convenient refuge, a way of absenting himself from the harshness of the working world. Death, meanwhile, is acknowledged as “the ultimate alone” in ‘ur heck box’, which, along with ‘Please Take’ and ‘Touching People’, present stark and contrasting depictions of grief.
Though these stories usually focus on a “lack” or nagging absence, Lacey’s storytelling is so wonderfully delineated that it is easy to become wholly absorbed, to feel completely present amid the characters’ anxieties and actions. There is also a dry, satirical variety of comedy running throughout; even the saddest stories contain moments of misunderstanding, bursts of cynically observant wordplay, and scenes that edge – and occasionally accelerate, full-throttle – into the absurd.
The most powerful stories here invite the reader to speculate about the true “state” or course of the story. Indeed, Lacey’s conclusions to ‘Learning’, ‘Small Differences’ and ‘Family Physics’ seem to leave particular elements deliberately buried, while the nested series of fictionalised accounts in ‘Violation’ wittily defy any attempt at using them to decrypt a clear sequence of overarching events. ‘ur heck box’ also contains a similar – and intentionally frustrating – layer of consistently unclear messages. ‘Please Take’ even seems to include guidelines for navigating this uneven, if pleasing, narrative terrain – “a junction in an old, unplanned city where ten streets hit each other in a burst and there is nothing but choices and no clear answers and no clear path, just chaos, too many options”.
In other words, fill up the tank, because the possibilities are endless.
Words: Catherine Gaffney