Textual Dysfunction

The Bed Moved: Stories BY Rebecca Schiff. Knopf. Hardcover, 160 pages. $24.

Rebecca Schiff’s debut story collection, The Bed Moved, is a shorter-than-average book of shorter-than-average fictions about misanthropes who are (or may as well be) near-miss versions of each other, all of whom find the same pained comedy in sex, death, Brooklyn, Judaism, and summer camp. The title story, two pages long and the first piece in the book, opens with an unnamed narrator reporting that “There were film majors in my bed—they talked about film. There were poets, coxswains, guys trying to grow beards.” Two or three other stories open with similar lists, and one called “Third Person” features a woman named Rebecca who “had sex recently, but she forgot.” It seems telling, then, that the only time the bed moves in “The Bed Moved” is when “movers moved it. Movers asked what my dad did, why he wasn’t moving the bed.” The narrator doesn’t answer, but the preponderance of evidence suggests that he, like many of the other fathers in this slim, self-aware compendium of blow jobs and dead dads, is lost to cancer. One-hundred-and-thirty-five pages later, the twenty-third and final story—another two-pager, called “Write What You Know”—begins, “I only know about parent death and sluttiness.” No kidding.

And yet I loved The Bed Moved. I love the traditions of narrative obsession, syntactic contortion, and blurt-it-out black humor from which it springs. You’ll find traces of Gary Lutz’s Stories in the Worst Way, and at times more than just traces of Sam Lipsyte’s Venus Drive. Recursive phonic astuteness and hard-charging minimalism are the orders of the day here, making clear that Schiff’s apples are fallen or flung from the family tree of authors mentored, influenced, published, rejected, or otherwise fathered by the editor-teacher Gordon Lish, a man known to advise students that writing is “the opposite of therapy.”

There’s a through-line, cultural as well as formal, from the end of Lish’s tenure at Knopf and the folding of The Quarterly (both in the mid-’90s) through the heyday of Open City and the New York Tyrant—two crucial indie lit mags with presses attached that thrived in the ’00s—on to Schiff’s platoon of laconic neurotics. These budding bitter-backward-glancers are old enough to feel uneasy about how easy it’s gotten to win rounds of “Never Have I Ever,” but not yet settled enough to have a full-time job, or much hope of fulfilling Mom’s long-deferred dream of grandkids. Either that or they are actual teenagers, horny sarcastic outcasts yearning for the obliteration of the innocence they’ve been saddled with. “We are ashamed virgins,” says the narrator of “Sports Night.” “We own condoms for no reason. We get As on our Sex Ed quizzes, the ones Abstinence is petitioning to get rid of. I pen an op-ed saying the school should keep the quizzes. While we’re taking them, I watch girls who do Sports Night remember blowjobs they gave down by the quarry, if this town even has a quarry. I don’t know where the blow jobs are. They could be anywhere.”

The blind spot in Schiff’s adolescents’ precocity is that they don’t know they’re going to become the so-called adults of the book’s other stories. That this happens—and just how quickly—may be the harshest wisdom The Bed Moves has to offer. It’s a blink of an eye from the bumbling fervor of inaugural summer gropes in “Schwartz, Spiegel, Zaveri, Cho” to the woman in the viciously titled “Little Girl,” who “slept with men who only wanted to play Settlers of Catan. . . . She slept with sound architects, sound engineers, and the second baseman from her softball league. She hardly ever slept.”

Sex in Schiff’s world mostly ends up compounding the sense of emptiness that led you to want to have it in the first place, but at least the making of the mistake is an act of volition. This puts it in stark, even crude contrast to cancer—which appears uninvited, as though from nowhere, and devours from within. Cancer appears in “The Lucky Lady,” “Another Cake,” “Keep an Eye on It,” and several more stories. The shock of parent death, as well as the stultifications and outrages of grieving, provides a context (it might be overreach, and surely judgy, to say “the motive”) for the cauterized emotions and joyless escapades whose implications Schiff’s characters can never fully drive into remission through their self-awareness or their ironizing, what one character calls “the gallows humor of the coffee-brewing class.”

My favorite moments in The Bed Moved pushed past Woody Allen-ish nebbishing and Amy Schumer-ish schlemieling to arrive at a place of bracing savagery, as in the story “Rate Me,” where the narrator’s aside about how she likes her nipple hair leads her to conclude that “We have to stay sentimental about one flaw, coddle our attachment to something, so we can do extreme violence to the rest. It’s like how the president has a dog.”

So much darkness delivered in such consistent doses risks habituation, but Schiff keeps things lively with her fearlessness and/or shamelessness and/or fearlessness of shame. This quality—and the refusal or inability to distinguish its different versions from each other—marks Schiff as heir to a specifically American Jewish tradition that began with Philip Roth and is carried forward today by novelists like Elisa Albert and Adam Wilson, as well as TV shows like Broad City and Girls. Of course, Lish, Lipsyte, and Lutz—and, hey, yours truly!—are all Jews too, and of course the two traditions overlap as often as they run parallel. Cataloguing difference within the context of presumptive sameness—ethnic, aesthetic, or otherwise—is a fraught business to say the least, and my aim here is to say the least about it that I can get away with saying. I only hope I haven’t driven Schiff to distraction with comparisons (though this too is a Jewish tradition) when all I really meant to say was, Welcome to the family. We quibble as we love: over takeout Chinese food. We’re only nagging you because we care.

Justin Taylor is the author of the story collections Flings (Harper, 2014) and Everything Here Is the Best Thing Ever (2010), and the novel The Gospel of Anarchy (2011; both HarperPerennial).