Book Review: Could You Be with Her Now by Jen Michalski

Could You Be with Her Now
Jen Michalski
Dzanc, 2013

Reviewed by Barrett Warner

Jen Michalski may have been listening when Nikki Giovanni spoke how the internet—how social media—was turning us into extroverted hermits. The shy Maryland author runs the biggy-sized literary platform JMWW. The site totes some 1,000 hits a day thanks to Michalski’s tenacious but quiet charm, and the way she keeps hundreds of conversations going without any eye contact. Likewise, Michalski’s stories are often driven by characters trying everything to make deeper connections with each other in spite of huge differences. Her energy seems anti-Modern, without being traditional, since she clearly moves away from the “loner, fractured self heroes” of the previous generation of novels. Instead of questioning why they exist, Michalski’s characters wonder, mustn’t there be one person, anyone, to share the world…who cares if it’s a Martian spider?

Michalski’s latest book Could You Be with Her Now consists of two novellas: “I Can Make It to California before It’s Time for Dinner” and “May September,” and you don’t have to Google anything to figure out one novella evokes a crisis of space and boundaries, and the other a crisis of time. First things first—a novella is not a short novel or a long short story. Rather, it uses a single tumultuous arc to get the readers someplace even before we’ve had a chance to deeply understand a complex plot, or the full ironic and conflicted ranges of the characters. We intentionally don’t get the whole story. In a novella, dramatic tension is not always between two characters (since we don’t know them well enough for that). It relies on the stress of the larger outside world coming inside for a visit and blowing things up for a little while.

The protagonist and speaker in “California,” Jimmy Dembroski, falls somewhere on the autistic spectrum. He requires lots of supervision, repetition and small school buses. We haven’t seen such a convincing not-knowing hero since Quentin Compson’s brother, Benjamin, but we’re a long way from Yoknapatawpha County. There’s a street name, a house, a neighbor, a Giant Food store, a MacDonald’s, a 7-Eleven. Everything else is California in Jimmy’s mind. Making it to California before it’s time for dinner ostensibly means making it to the unknown, which is only three or four blocks away. So it’s a journey, Jimmy on an adventure, and the world is journeying too, pulling him along, pushing against him. The struggle is about context. Jimmy’s literal perception—it’s all he has—means his experience is always two-dimensional. There is no boundary between concept and reality. Sound like anyone you know who lives by the internet?

For Jimmy, the world-wide web is really wide, and very sticky. “I watch the TV for my girlfriend Megan. She’s fourteen and I’m fifteen and every day she’s on the show that I watch about her. She’s pretty and I wish we could hold hands and kiss. My brother Josh is seventeen and doesn’t play with me and doesn’t like Megan. His girlfriend is not on TV and she’s not pretty.” Jimmy creates an intricate one-sided relationship with the after-school television star, part of his drive to “connect” in spite of being surrounded by a family that seems to want to disconnect from him. At a family “big talk” session, “Mom and Dad look at each other but don’t say anything.”

Jimmy’s quest for California begins innocently enough, since it’s only a mile or so up the street from his home in Maryland. He’s gone looking for Megan since Josh wants to watch his own TV show. The murder, kidnapping, and rape which ensue are released to the reader in Jimmy’s voice, associative to the edge of non sequitor. This lens softens the details, and gives the reader plenty of room to invest his or her own imagination. Jimmy’s voice is the lyric of this story. The plot he occupies is the narrative. Everything in between is metaphor. Michalski manages each strand like a poet, alternating the weave as she goes, until lyric and story and infinite possibility are one. Whether or not it’s a raft down the Mississippi River or an eighteen wheeler speeding down Interstate 95 to Florida, Michalski has written us into believing an improbable tale of migratory sociopaths.

Part of this is because Jimmy is someone who lives in everyone’s ego. Like many of us, Jimmy loves his routines. He cannot come any closer to connecting than repetition, but he also gets excited for surprises. When he returns from killing the girl he thought was Megan, his mother “calls for pizza and I am excited because we are having pizza and it isn’t Friday.” Hasn’t each of us wanted to wear our football jersey to work even when the home team wasn’t playing that night?

Jimmy’s ticks are charming too. His compulsion to have two of everything reinforces his fetish for companionship. He’s got two toy soldiers, and when given a lollipop by the truck driver who reminds him of an uncle, Jimmy quickly asks for a second one. When Josh takes him to the 7-Eleven he wants two Slurpees in one container. Almost all of his baseball cards are doubles. He orders two Happy Meals for himself, and since he doesn’t have enough money he orders two fries instead. Having mistakenly suffocated his hamster Mr. Kibble one night by sleeping on him, he wants another, Mr. Kibble Two.

Michalski has also given Jimmy the gift of pretending, which is a wink-wink form of imagination. Jimmy says, when the family is gathered for pizza, “I pretend I am a dinosaur eating people. Dad tells me to eat with my mouth closed because I am not a cow.” He also make-believes sleep and sort of wins us over with his analysis of himself which is held together with implausible, but irrefutable causes and effects. In some chapters the word “because” appears three times on each page, with comparable numbers of transition words like “but”:

I walk to Josh’s school, where we play pogs. I wish I brought my pogs because maybe
those kids will be there. I go behind the school. I have homework for tomorrow but I will
do it later because I can’t write on the ground.

Jimmy is lost in his own neighborhood. Fortunately there’s a truck stop nearby where he meets the driver, Ed, who is “short and fat like a Weeble and has a moustache like Yosemite Sam, but he is not a cartoon he is a real man.” Here, Jimmy makes a mental leap he never made with Megan. Well that’s animation for you, as opposed to reality programming (which must be really trying for someone who only sees in two dimensions anyway).

Ed’s truck, for all its horrors, also leads Jimmy to his first understanding of a different dimension and point of view, helping him to go beyond the flat screen of everything: “Mr. Ed’s truck is louder than our car… It’s fun because we’re tall and I can look down at the other cars. They look smaller than when I am in our car. It’s weird that things get smaller when you are not close to them but they really do not get small. I wonder if Mom would be small now if I saw her.”

I couldn’t turn pages fast enough to reach the conclusion of “I Can Make It to California before It’s Time for Dinner.” It’s rare that an author could give us so much existentialism, at least two answers for every three questions, and still build a story that has both pleasure and suspense. Part of it is that Michalski has fingered an ache in all of us. Life shouldn’t be about our aches, our emptinesses, how we lost the leg or hand. Life should be more about the connections we still try to find, the life in us that continues on with other lives around us. A soul is everyone’s best hope. Jimmy’s soul is checked by his lack of nuance, and as social media continue to train us against nuance in favor of averages and compromise, we risk losing our own best hopes for lighting the paths we must walk.

Nuance also plays an important role in “May-September.” The two protagonists, Alice and Sandra, are full of nuance. Not surprisingly, Alice’s former lover and Sandra’s former husband and her daughter Andrea haven’t any nuance at all. It has to do with pitch. Digital everything has given us even tempered pitch, where the “B” note is merely the average of the “a” and “C” notes. Well-tempered pitch on the other hand reflects the natural evolution of scale as it corresponds to the human ear. Alice and Sandra have tuned their lives to a well-tempered pitch, which is key to two women so different in ages (there’s forty more years one has lived that the other hasn’t) making a connection into a love affair.

It started with a computer. Sandra has one set up for her by a man who won’t look at her because she is so old. She plans to write a blog to keep her grandchildren informed about her and so that her daughter won’t worry that her mother lived so far away and so alone.

Alice had tried to talk her through the process on the phone—setting up the account, adding pictures, typing entries and labeling them and organizing archives. She said, yes, yes, yes, all the while knowing she would never remember these things. She wished she would die and leave the grandchildren nothing but her money, no stories, no strings. And when she hung up with Andrea, full of assurances that her first post would be coming within hours, days, oh but soon, she turned away from the friendly little void and played some of Chopin’s etudes.

The young Alice, an MFA in her hip pocket and a day job at a bookstore, responds to the ad for a blog writer. Heat comes off almost every one of their exchanges, and Alice is so careful not to learn something about Sandra without revealing herself. She spends her first paycheck on bunches of grapes to bring Sandra. From their first meeting, the dialogue is seamless from experience (there isn’t any conversational punctuation and chapters don’t end, but start anew): “A splash of lilies on the table, cinnamon and violet and butter ones, bled into the reflection of window rain beneath them. The rain bled on the Steinway in the corner shadow and the coffee table and the low-light glass frames on the walls and the grandfather clock and Alice wondered how someone could live in a room full of rain.”

William Gass called the word “violet” a sexual shudder. In this brief description, Michalski gives us lilies representing spice, sexual shudder and the fat pleasure of butter. Add a corner shadow, some music and a reference to Time (the piano and the grandfather clock), and the outside weather coming inside, and this is what you need for empathy to take over the world.

This novella is one of the most moving stories I’ve read this year, and Michalski shows herself to be a remarkably subtle writer of a kind of writing that seems impossible to teach or learn. Unlike the second dimension preoccupations of Jimmy Dembroski, this pair are traveling in the fourth dimension, time itself, and timelessness. And to imagine it all started with a blog creation. So easily do they slip from trading notes about themselves, and photographs, to trading their lives with each other, and Sandra’s music, and Alice’s short stories. The outside world with its schedules and drivers and mechanical responsibilities doesn’t always comply and this add great drama to a love affair which is so simple and so essential. Drink plenty of water before reading the ending. Most of it will be coming out of your eyes. The groans that came out of me were so loud my therapy dog started barking in sympathy.


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