Bottom Line

If there’s any justice, this collection will win this year’s National Book Award.  It’s that good.

[Note: I wrote this review, including the Bottom Line, before the winner, Adam Johnson’s Fortune Smiles, was announced.  So I suppose there is no justice…!  (Though Fortune Smiles is also a great collection – review forthcoming).

Representative Paragraph 

I love this…

I did not believe that God had sent me, and I hoped Aviva would not leave her infant daughter loose in the bed again, and that her daughter would not be accidentally smothered or worse by her wild sons. I hoped that we would find jobs that would not make us so eager for this free lunch, and I hoped we would find friends that would make us less eager for any sort of company. I hoped that we could find something in common with Aviva and Rabbi Jacob, because they were, in fact, nice. I kept thinking of her baby, the sight of her sleeping, tiny, loose, on the bed. It was all I could think about. We kept eating and eating, and at the end of lunch, we helped her bus the dishes and stood with her in the humid, tin-foiled kitchen. I thought of that tiny baby lying on the bed, sitting there like a toy or a shoe, revealed by her brothers under the sheet, and then I loved that baby, that tiny perfect being, loved her as though she were my own. As Aviva said goodbye, the baby was cradled on her shoulder. Shana opened her eyes and stared at me. My heart jumped.

—Bye, we said to Aviva and Rabbi Jacob.

—Bye, we said to Joshua and Adam.

—Bye, we said to Shana.

We turned and walked out of their townhouse onto the sidewalk, and when I turned around, I saw Shana still looking at me, with her clear bright eyes, and I felt those eyes on me as we went on into the day, under that blazing, empty sky, my family and I, to our own particular uncertainty.


imageWhile the 14 stories in Karen E. Bender’s short story collection, Refund, span a twenty year period there’s a consistency to the themes that feature throughout. Most of the stories have a middle America vibe coupled with a creeping sense of ennui and hopelessness as families battle to survive in a shifting, narrowing economy.  Beneath it all there’s a feeling of awkwardness, especially between family members, as siblings and parents and married couples struggle to find commonalities.

If that sounds depressing, fear not. The stories are infused with a wry sense of humour and a keen understanding of human nature. These might be short stories, but in an economy of words Bender draws well developed, sympathetic, relatable characters, most of whom are woman – 13 of the 14 stories are told from the female perspective. More than that, while there’s a number of stories where at least one parent is unemployed, or the family is barely scratching a living above the poverty line, each work is very different in terms of tone and plot. Bender avoids sameness by allowing for the unexpected. For example, the opening story, “Reunion” has a horrifying moment where a man opens fire on the attendees of a thirty year school reunion. For most writers it would be the focus of the piece, but for Bender it’s acts as catalyst for the protagonists mid-life crisis. In the “Candidate”, a political hopeful running on an anti-gay, family values agenda knocks on the door of Diane Bernstein, a single mother who has better things to do with her day then listen to a rant about homosexuals. Midway through a sentence, the candidate topples over in a dead faint. It’s a surprise both for the reader and Diane, but it’s also not the focus of the story which is about faith and politics.

While all the stories are excellent the one story that really plays to Bender’s narrative and thematic strengths is, predictably, the title piece, “Refund”. John and Clarissa, struggling to make ends-meet as artists, are desperate to enrol their three year old son, Sammy, into an expensive private pre-school. When they are both offered short-term employment at a University in Virginia, they see this as an opportunity to raise the money for the tuition by accepting the job and sub-letting their low rent apartment at an inflated rate, which happens to be located a few doors down from the World Trade Centre (AKA the trendy part of town). This story takes place during September 2001, and you all know what happened next.

Bender’s description of New York a handful of days after the falling of the twin towers highlights both the subtlety of her prose, but also her ability to avoid cliché and sentimentality:

Burning concrete and computers and office carpets and jets and steel girders and people. There was nothing natural about the smell; it tasted bitter and metal in her mouth and blew through their neighborhood at variable times; the mornings began sweet and deceptive, yet the afternoons became heavy with it. She began to get a sore throat, and her tongue became numb. The girls at the American Lung Association table gave her a white paper mask and told her that there was nothing to worry about, but to keep her windows closed and stay inside. She walked against the small stream of people wearing paper masks. The streets were dark and shiny, the sanitation trucks spraying down the street to keep the dust from lifting into the air. A man walked by in a suit and a gas mask. Did he know something that they did not? Where did he get the gas mask?

The deceptive sweetness in the air, the bitter, metallic taste, the man with the gas mask, all vivid images – but all tainted by a lingering anxiety, a fear that someone might know more than you do, might know that the air is poisonous, that there might be further attacks, that the place you live in is not safe.

Fantastic prose aside, what’s surprising about the story is how Bender uses entitlement and privilege to explore the way different people deal with unexpected tragedy and horror. Even before Clarissa and John have returned home they receive an email from the woman they sublet the apartment too, Kim, requesting a refund. Not only was she disappointed with her lodgings, Kim, wants John and Clarissa to pay her $1,000 for every nightmare she’s experienced since witnessing the destruction of the towers. As Kim’s letters becomes increasingly unhinged – with constant references to the terrible condition of the apartment, questioning how anyone with a modicum of pride could live in such squalor – I found myself belittling Kim’s experience – I mean, it’s not like she was in the towers, is it? – while feeling sympathy for the poor struggling artists. And yet what becomes clear is that these angry missives asking for impractical sums of money are Kim’s only way of coping with the horror she witnessed. It’s powerful stuff.

While I’ve chosen to speak about ‘Refund’ it’s not my favourite piece in the collection. That would be the oh so wonderful and touching, “Free Lunch” where a middle class family – both the husband and wife have been made redundant – are invited over for Passover lunch by the local Chasidic (Lubavitch most likely) Rabbi. Bender perfectly captures the anarchy of the Chasidic home, that mix of warmth and religious devotion and an endless supply of children who refuse to behave. And while at its heart “Free Lunch” is a story of a husband and wife trying to come to terms with the economic reality of not having jobs, of not being able to provide for their own children, it’s a surprisingly optimistic story.

Last year a collection, Phil Klay’s powerful set of stories about the Iraq War, Redeployment, won the National Book Award. I’m hoping this year the judges sidestep favourites like Fates and Furies and A Little Life and once again hand the award over to this magnificent short story collection. It’s seriously that good.