IIn a ramshackle share house “that other people thought was romantic,” a woman is sitting on a bed, chatting with a friend. They are young, shortly after college, self-conscious; she drifts through the summer, composing emails for her high school English teacher, wondering if her friend, if she told her, would think this is “in her character.” “I knew I should allow unusual actions, but when I was acting, and generally thinking about acting more than I was acting, I wanted to know if I was acting like me.” Above them, “the remnants of a glow-in-the-dark solar system clustered around the overhead light… The adhesive from the stars was slowly peeling off. The tail of a comet withered, the rings of Saturn peeled off at the edges. “Sometimes when he wakes up in the morning, there is” a star or an orb or the ring of a planet on the pillow next to me. than to remind myself not to turn everything into a metaphor. “
In this debut collection, Clare Sestanovich shows both an enormous gift for metaphor (again and again, the seemingly mundane that comes with arms full of meaning) and for what is not entirely irony, but a kind of running comment. invisible: a flattering push to the reader that only deepens the effect. So, at the beginning of the first story, “Annunciation,” a young woman about to graduate from college is dating a virgin. “The exams are over and no one has anything else to do except go to parties and throw things away.” The reader will assume that this includes virginity, so the narrator deliberately adds, “On the sidewalk, there are lamps without lampshades and posters without frames,” which only underscores the point.
“A star”, at the end of “Old Hope”, “did not fall from the ceiling.” The young woman has learned not to demand a wordy metaphor, but of course this is the greatest metaphor of all, a textbook example of the highly elaborate opening at the end of a story that Sestanovich, a New Yorker editor who You have taught creative writing, you know it is a hallmark of a particular type of fine writing. The ability, as creative writing teacher Brenda says of her students, not entirely approvingly, to “convey the meaning of their stories, the meaning of their lives, in two or three closing sentences.”
Sestanovich is an extraordinary notor. Carefully, in moderation, analyze layers of feeling and attitude; of the little ways we admit or reject love; of incremental, almost invisible losses of oneself. She is also good at animating physical details, although they can lean toward a gauged, annoying, and distant dislike.
However, deep down there are bigger, more confusing and independent questions: questions about loneliness, loss, pain; about whether to have children, how to have children, how not to lose connection with them. There is an insistent concern for self-definition, in all the late capitalist forms of what you buy, where you live, how jaded and knowing you could be, which only emphasizes how free those selves are. These are questions about purpose and, yes, meaning.
These stories of women in a very particular place and time in the American 21st century – pre-Covid, wealthy, liberal, coastal metropolitans – are full of privilege and doom; of anxiety and waste, and anxiety of waste, where the waste is more often of its own hot-lodged potential. A young woman works as a nighttime babysitter in one of those vast uptown New York apartments where the elevator opens to the lobby. The story ends with an almost gothic scene of a five-year-old girl in an oversized dress carrying an invisible baby and saying goodbye to her three-day-old babysitters (“Rehydrate after crying,” one of them warns, a touch brilliantly wild ). The girl, of course, sees through all of this, but that doesn’t change the fact that she’s adrift on acres of luxurious space, deeply homeless and seemingly safe at home.
At the same time, it is sometimes difficult not to feel, reading these stories, that one is in a room of self-conscious mirrors, noticing, noticing oneself, noticing, in infinite regression. Sometimes this includes a sharp critique of the trend: “One of her friends said it would have been a good college essay,” thinks a girl whose brother once did not commit suicide. But in this apolitical world, the narcissism of small differences is not completely canceled in the knowledge that that is what it is and that it is some kind of tragedy. Sestanovich’s final story ends with a couple talking to their only daughter, who has just left home. The mother, who has been seared from a previous bereavement, has remodeled the kitchen, which is now all hard surfaces; the daughter, on the loudspeaker, only hears her own echo. “I’ll take you to a different room,” says her father. “With softer things.” And she walks away, leaving her mother in the kitchen, “the voice that comes out of her palm, tiny and increasingly calm, then goes away.” The metaphor – and the final three sentences – are an almost too perfect, too ordered tie. But they are also effective.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism