Leaps of Illogic

Wait Till You See Me Dance: Stories BY Deb Olin Unferth. Graywolf Press. Paperback, 200 pages. $16.

The cover of Wait Till You See Me Dance: Stories

Woe to anyone picking up this slim collection who, steered wrong by its title, expects suburban-book-club fodder or ecstatic, dance-like-no-one's-watching self-affirmation. Deb Olin Unferth's sophomore volume of stories is more a cauldron of simmering desperation than a sisterhood of traveling pants. That title, Wait Till You See Me Dance, is a typical feint, a sly way to sneak the poison in. In these stories, people are constantly ending up in holes, both literal and figurative. They have lost things, or are lost themselves. They are looking for love in all the very wrong places: in prisons, for instance, and on the late-night doorsteps of ex-lovers.

Unferth's general tone—equal parts sweet and sinister, a combination that's certainly easy to flub—will be familiar to those who have read her debut novel, Vacation (2008). That book spun an implausible tale (dolphin kidnappings, brain-tumor-related psychosis, Central American vagabonding) as an excuse to talk about a decaying marriage. It began with a sort of slapstick routine that brings to mind the work of artist Sophie Calle: The protagonist, Myers, suspicious, starts following his wife, who is in turn following a total stranger around New York City, for no reason other than perverse curiosity. Later, some people embark on failed, faraway journeys in search of enlightenment; most of those people die. Vacation is certainly impressive for its multivocal, multinational narrative bends, but even more so for the strangeness that Unferth applies to language, and to her off-kilter rendering of common concepts like airplanes, or relationships. Here she is, for instance, on Myers and his wife's plans to legally separate: "They were joined, after all, just by paper, mostly, and by awkwardly shaped pieces of wood, porcelain, glass, metal, bits of cloth, ideas about soap, beliefs about historical events, sleeping habits, memories of rainfalls and other watery things (oceans, ponds, faucets) that they had visited or seen together in pictures."

Unferth has always been a wild talent in search of an appropriate form. Vacation could seem strained at times, its constituent parts—epistolary snippets, confessional monologues—charmingly banged together to make it run. Wait Till You See Me Dance confirms that the short story (and, albeit less reliably, the very, very short story) is her best vessel. The collection is divvied up into four sections, separating the longer narrative pieces from the flurry of bits and sketches. The latter are akin to oblique, tiny, Kafkaesque parables, or the microfictions of Lydia Davis. They are sharply focused: In one story, a pair of historians win a grant to travel to a Latin American country; in another, a woman struggles to cut down her internet usage. The pieces occasionally toy with the language of self-help, in the second person. Take "Husband," for instance, a single run-on sentence about a former mate "who first writes, then doesn't write, then writes to the point of absurdity, then refuses to write," and so on, until "you slowly take a step back . . . from the cliff that you thought would surely claim your life, and another step, and a few more, until you find you are on a path walking the other way." Similar in tone, "Likable" is a three-paragraph-long rumination on why an aging woman is becoming unlikable: "What was the problem? Did she just not enjoy the world anymore? Had the world gotten away from her? Had the world gotten worse?"

These vignettes—obsessively noodling and nudging around a single urge, anxiety, psychological rift—are somehow less successful than the ones in which Unferth births small, enigmatic narratives, and leaves them there, half-formed, to be puzzled over. In pieces like "Decorate, Decorate," commonplace acts become dreadful. A woman is, well, decorating (Unferth's titling is pretty blunt), and she drags some undefined ornamental object into the house. "Can you top that?" she wonders. "That decoration needs some effort, some hard work. You can't leave that one in the shed. You can't turn the light off on that one. You have to bring that one around with you everywhere you go. It keeps you busy." The obvious-enough baby metaphor here gets pleasantly muddied when the woman begins to worry about her decoration's longevity: "Then where will she be? She needs another backup decoration, perhaps in the basement. She'll need to leave it in the dark, locked away." This is all rendered so simply, so quasi-cute, that the despair beneath appears in sharp relief.

This sense of quiet terror reappears in "Yesterday," which is short enough to quote in its entirety:

The dog and I spent the day in our cages, he in his smaller one, I in my bigger one, and we were quite content. At a certain moment he grew impatient and at a different moment I did, but we were each there to comfort the other both times. As night came on we crouched and listened for the man of the house to come home and rattle our bars.

Unferth's neatest trick is to bloody the line between the metaphorical and the literal: Is what we have here a woman subsumed by the drudgery and solitude of married life, or an actual abductee in a soundproof midwestern dungeon? The piece recalls "Soap," from Unferth's debut collection, Minor Robberies (2007), another tale of a marriage's slow dissolution, in which the flailing couple finds their bathroom's soap bar mysteriously and continuously scratched, or moved, or stolen. They suspect "a creature, a long tall creature" is raiding their home. The husband waits, watches, plays midnight vigilante. Meanwhile an old man in the apartment next door, audible through thin walls, is busy expiring, his chest wracked by "great heaving moist hacks." The next-door neighbor dies; the soap-vandalizing creature stops showing up; the woman leaves her husband. That beast may have never existed, but beastliness, that's just life. There is never a lack of small horrors.

Julita Malinowska, Precipitation (detail), 2011, oil on canvas, 100 3/8 × 78 3/4". Galerie Sandhofer.
Julita Malinowska, Precipitation (detail), 2011, oil on canvas, 100 3/8 × 78 3/4". Galerie Sandhofer.

Ultimately, it is the longer-form stories in Wait Till You See Me Dance that make the collection memorable. Unferth might sprawl and meander at novel length, and her microfiction can occasionally seem breezy or abrupt—but somewhere in the middle, this author finds her sweet spot, stoking emotional intensity over the course of a mere handful of pages. (The only downside is that these medium-length stories—sweeping yet concise—can make the shorter stuff seem like slight sketches in comparison.) There's "Mr. Simmons Takes a Prisoner," in which a married man (spoiler alert: not happy) signs up to be a volunteer visitor at a women's prison, puffed up with the task of educating his vulnerable charge—an echo of Paula Fox's terrific 1967 novel, Poor George—and ultimately, like many of Unferth's protagonists, marinating in his own patheticness, an awkwardly recognized, unrequited need.

"Stay Where You Are" details the mishaps of a May-September couple adrift in an unnamed and volatile Latin American nation (the region is a touchstone for Unferth, who spent time in 1980s Nicaragua among the Sandinistas, an experience detailed in her 2011 memoir, Revolution). The pair have been on an eighteen-year-long international meander, avoiding "what they'd always been running from, the drab, the dull, the dumb, and then death." (Unferth is an alliterative savant, surely.) They're picked up by a vaguely Marxist guerrilla; he has no English, and they have no Spanish. Unferth constructs a tense showdown, an excuse to unpack the three lives that have convened at this moment, in this jungle. Given a momentary chance to escape, the wife runs, only to return after hearing a gun blast. "She didn't know who had been shot—Max or the gunman. She was pushing away the branches, she was pushing herself through, and then she stepped out to greet him (I came back for you) or to be shot."

Another gun plays the key role in "The First Full Thought of Her Life." This is Unferth at her best: topical, tragicomic, giddily using her omniscient narrator's prerogative to shuffle between her story's conflicting points of view. A young couple and their two children have traveled to an unnamed tourist trap, an artificial oasis—"planted trees, swimming pools, a store that sells snacks, liquor, and a small selection of wines"—erected in a glorified parking lot, its centerpiece an enormous man-made sand dune. "The dune was so white it looked like aluminum," Unferth writes. "A flawless day." And then: "The shooter was already in position at this point."

Who is this guy? "No one was watching the shooter. Maybe this had been his problem from the very start. Unseen man. It certainly was a problem today." (We can imagine him an avid Infowars listener, thrilling to Trump's promise that he'll never be forgotten again.) He is wearing the unofficial uniform of military-obsessed survivalist freaks everywhere, fondling an M16, scouting the futures he can decimate by pulling the trigger.

Meanwhile the story's narrator proves a prodigious empath. She crawls inside the head of the mother, who is somehow aware of what is about to happen and yet powerless to stop it; inside the shooter's mind, as he communes with a collective choir of all the other bitter American shooters who have shot before him; into the brains of some birds flying overhead; into the life of a Nevada-based drone operator, idly trying out her satellite imaging on this exact, tourist-beloved artificial sand dune, surmounted by a young girl on the brittle cusp of death. Unferth assembles this tense, tender web, which is nothing less than America itself, in miniature; and then, abiding by those first-act rules, that gun blows it all apart.

Scott Indrisek is a writer living in Brooklyn and the cofounder of Teen Party, an apartment-gallery in Bedford-Stuyvesant.