Jan 24 2014

Make Me Do Things by Victoria Redel

Annie Piotrowski

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Victoria Redel's latest collection of short stories begins with a nighttime scene: A recently divorced woman sits quietly in the background of a late-evening party. Everything is peacefully hazy until her friend's husband turns to her and confesses that both he and his wife are in love with her. At that moment, her world shifts.

Redel, a novelist and poet, has worked with scenes like this before, most notably in her debut novel, Loverboy. In that disquieting story, narrated from a mental hospital by a mother whose bond with her child curdles into obsession, love is something to long for but also to dread. Make Me Do Things is, in some ways, a refinement and expansion of that argument. Love is patient, love is kind? Not so much for this group of malcontents. Redel's characters search for the correct amount of love only to binge or starve themselves recklessly.

These stories, pieced together from everyday moments like bedtime stories and coffee shop talks, are emotional precisely because they are understated. Redel's characters are observers, curious about life but made vulnerable when real life disrupts their carefully constructed worldviews. "But it was obvious to him now that he'd missed it all. Seen nothing. Or just the wrong things," Redel writes of one of her characters, a self-conscious man with all the wrong assumptions.

Redel's stories become suspenseful because of her characters' impossible wishes; not for grandiose, fantastical things (that would be less heartbreaking) but for small impossibilities. "Call me Polly and I've got to be happier than who I am," one character jokes, a moment of wit but mostly of resigned sadness. She reveals how she longs for the everyday worries of motherhood, but fears that she'll never have a child.

Make Me Do Things is a series of profiles made beautiful by its author's restrained and elegant prose—Redel's characters are on the brink of loving someone or nothing, and we watch them hesitate even as their worlds shrink. The characters' uncertainty echoes the title's urgency—Make me do things! Make me save myself!

In their everyday desperation, Redel's stories hit close to home. Two friends long for children; a grieving son tries to explain away his mother's secrets; and a young boy waits to join the private world of his mother and her boyfriend. These situations are sad with sparks of love, especially this last one, the only story told from the perspective of a child. It's the title story, and in many ways, the heart of the collection.

The boy sits at the side of a pool, watching his mother and her beau do the dead man's float. It's a mystery why he is there at all, since he can't swim, and they aren't at all interested in teaching him. It's such a cruel situation that we long for a Roald Dahl-style comeuppance for the adults (maybe death via giant peach?)

Yet Redel introduces a final level of loneliness: despite the gulf between the boy and his guardians, they're all he has. As the story continues, the adults become "swollen and pink...strapless and drifting slightly under." The boy cannot tell if they are breathing, and neither can the reader. The mood shifts from melancholy into horror, recalling a question from another of Redel's characters, a little girl fascinated by dinosaurs and extinctions who asks her mother before bedtime, "What if we were the last ones on Earth?"

But Redel's characters pose an even more troubling problem. What if we have made ourselves the last ones on Earth? What if our isolation was self-imposed? Throughout Redel's collection of eleven stories, many of our contemporary complications—social media, technology, and the constant communication of smart phones and instant messaging—don't intrude on the characters' experience of love, longing, and despair. The result is a kind of composed quiet, with sparse and self-possessed storytelling stripped of everything extraneous. It feels slightly quaint, but there's one frightening implication: While we believe that our relationships would be more lovely, simple, and honest if we got rid of all these things, Redel's characters show otherwise. As they find themselves straying further away from love, they point to a realization that sounds like the ending of a B-grade horror movie. It's not the machines! It's us!

And it keeps being us until the very end. Redel's last story begins, "This is the story of the year my wife became the sea captain's wife and carried his child, a child that is by all rights mine." At first, it sounds almost charming—a bit of anomaly after such devastating realism. And even if the make-believe isn't the real object of the story, at least it's there, right? But in Make Me Do Things, the magic is a farce. We expect enchantment, but we're given an alcoholic writer, his pregnant wife, and this slap of a sentence: "I don't remember hitting Olivia, but apparently I hit her good and hard." There's nothing to distract us from the cruel truth. That wonderful nighttime story with the woman, the party, and the confession? We barely remember it. It's not nighttime anymore; the dreamy haze has lifted; and Redel's characters, lovers though they may be, condemn themselves in fits and starts, bits and pieces, to a life lived at the end of the world.

Annie Piotrowski is a student at Duke University and a former Bookforum intern.

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