This collection of short stories – simultaneously full of caustic humour and emotional devastation – is very clever. And I don’t mean clever in a trying-to-be-clever way, in a way that’s itching after English-student dissection and critic bamboozlement and literary prizes. Raphael Bob-Waksberg’s debut is highly attuned to the intricacies of love, in all of its many incarnations, and plays with surreal and off-beat turns of plot and genre.
Like in any collection, there are stories that worked better than others. I admire Bob-Waksberg’s playing with form, from rhyming couplet long-form poems to lists, but the ones that worked best for me were a little more traditional in their approach. In ‘A Most Blessed and Auspicious Occasion,’ a couple take on wedding planning in a short story that manages to satirize the wedding industry in an alternative universe where how many goats to slaughter during the ceremony to how long the wailing chorus should lament to how much to spend on a promise egg are the central preoccupations of everyone around them. Bob-Waksberg manages simultaneously to issue a critique of capitalism and tradition, all while being laugh-out-loud funny.
In a story that felt very much like a short film, ‘Missed Connection – m4w’ shows a man falling in love with a woman he sits across from on the Brooklyn Q train, ‘in that stupid way where you completely make up a fictional version of the person you’re looking at and fall in love with that person.’ Whilst working up the courage to say something to her, the years melt into decades, and still they ride the train back and forth on the same line – neither ever summoning the strength to speak.
‘For months we sat on the train saying nothing. We survived on bags of Skittles sold to us by kids raising money for their basketball teams. We must have heard a million mariachi bands, had our faces nearly kicked in by a hundred thousand break-dancers. I gave money to the panhandlers until I ran out of singles. When the train went aboveground I’d get text messages and voice mails (“Where are you? What happened? Are you okay?”) until my phone battery ran out.’
There is such an intense and yet understated lyricism to the way these stories cut open affairs of the heart, in both romantic and familial love. In ‘You Want To Know What Plays Are Like?’, a sister goes to her playwright brother’s opening night, only to discover the play is an excavation of their childhood which doesn’t portray her in the most flattering light. The second-person narration (which Bob-Waksberg does so well) describes her feeling like ‘The Museum of You is now open for business, every piece of you hung up on a wall, laid bare on a table, harshly lit and awkwardly described.’ He’s economical with words, and yet they perfectly encapsulate our deepest vulnerabilities.
‘…There remains one place more than any other you know you can never return to. You know where it is and you go out of your way to not see it, to not be reminded of the thing that happened there. It’s too much, this place. It would swallow you whole, this void, this pit, this unassuming two-story brownstone in Carroll Gardens that houses the one-bedroom apartment a much younger you and the man now listed in your phone as “DO NOT CALL HIM” were ever so foolish as to refer to as “home.”’
There are more I could talk about – ‘Rufus’, narrated from the perspective of a dog trying to communicate with his owner. ‘The Serial Monogamist’s Guide to Important New York City Landmarks,’ where too many places in the city bring back memories of failed relationships, ‘tragic victims of your fickle heart’. ‘Move across the country,’ a quietly devastating exploration of running away from Sadness, personified. But this is not a necessarily pessimistic excavation of love. In its propulsive and gut-wrenching way, it feels honest and unflinching and, ultimately, kind of hopeful. Dare I call it one of the most brilliant short story collections I’ve ever read?
‘And when the morning comes, our love like bugs will scatter in the light.’