March 18: “A Violence” by Jac Jemc

Happy Friday, Story366! Thanks for launching your weekend with me. I wish I could say I have big plans this coming time, but really, I’m planning to do two more Story366 posts, and otherwise, take it from there. Nothing else matters, does it? Is that the life of a daily blogger, to forsake all other pursuits in the name of the schedule? You betcha.  I’m here for you, readers. How else would you get whatever it is this is, anyway?

Today I’m venturing down a path I’ve not taken before on Story366: short shorts. This is odd for me, as my three collections of stories are primarily made up of shorts, stories less than a thousand words long, give or take, stories with a specific structure or mission that allows them to be so short, yet complete. I don’t have a 100 percent perfect answer as to why I’ve written so many shorts—though finishing a draft of something in one sitting is one reason—and I don’t know what place in literary history the short short will have. But I like them and have had success with them. I have come across a lot of new magazines that focus on the form, as well as some old standbys; at the same time, I’ve come across magazines that refuse to consider anything, prose-wise, under three thousand words. I was once solicited by a magazine, and when I sent some of my shorts, the editor wrote back and said, “I’ll read these, but only if could explain to me how an eight-hundred-word story could possibly be literature.” I didn’t write him back and never heard from him again, either, and that was six years ago (so, I guess those are still technically under consideration?).

I’ve avoided reading and discussing shorts for Story366 so far for no particular reason. Part of it, in my mind, might seem like cheating, that a piece of my imagination is telling me that reading something that’s two or three pages long isn’t enough, that you, Story366 readers, would be let down, perhaps even pissed. I know: It makes no sense, as I’m sure you really don’t care what I read. I’ve also been more or less planning a short short week, as I have several books of shorts and I do like my themed weeks. I’ll probably do that more sooner than later, as I think I have at least five to span a work week.

Today I jumped into Jac Jemc’s latest collection, A Different Bed Every Time, because I really like Jac’s work and once I had the book (sent along by the nice people at Dzanc), I just wanted to read it. Jac is a friend from Chicago, someone who’s floated in the same circles, along with the fact my first book was also on Dzanc and we know each other that way. So, without further ado, let’s talk Jemc (pronounced “Jems,” by the way).

The hardest thing about this project was picking a story, as there’s a lot of them, and they’re all pretty darned good. Once I started reading A Different Bed Every Time, I found it hard to stop, as the next story is no more than five pages long, and really, why not keep going? What’s another few minutes to read another story? So in one sitting, I got through a third of the book without trying. The collection seems to follow a similar theme, that of a narrator who experiences a coterie of lovers, of sexual situations, of aftereffects, as most of the stories I read touch on that theme in some way. The cover photo (which you can spy below) implies that as well, a woman, with an overnight bag, leaving or arriving at a random apartment, as if this is something she does, knows how to prepare for. It’s a cool theme for a book (and cover). For today, I’m focusing on the opening story—which completely embodies this theme—“A Violence.”

“A Violence” is narrated, first-personlike, by a woman who has a history of lovers, a history of encounters, many catalogued here, paragraph by paragraph, vignette by vignette. They seem to fall in order, adding up to something more telling, as each vignette is starkly different from the next, but, you know, accumulation. As with a lot of shorts, there really isn’t much of a standard story structure, as the antagonist and conflict of this story are hard to pinpoint. “Person vs. Self” would be the one I’d write on the board, if I had a board and students in front of me, but I think that’s selling this story kind of short (no pun intended here). This list of men, the fact that there’s a list, isn’t exactly portrayed as a fault, or something to be regretted or halted. The narrator isn’t regretful of her choices; on the contrary, she seems to revel in the variety, not fretting over societal conventions or hang-ups. The character is what she is, does what she does, and she owns it.

This is how “A Violence” differs from the story it most reminds me of, “Lust” by Susan Minot, an oft-anthologized story that also uses paragraph-long vignettes to list a narrator’s sexual encounters. The point of that story, more or less, is to show how the accumulation of all of her one-night stands has weathered this poor woman, longing for something more permanent, something less physical, but can’t seem to stop herself. The protagonist of “Lust” is a regretful nymphomaniac, while Jemc’s hero just isn’t.

Instead,  Jemc’s character seems to exist, in her head, alongside her sexual forays. The vignettes, in general, never focus on the sex, on anything we’d expect. She doesn’t look back on any of the encounters with nostalgia, regret, or fondness. Instead, each piece forms a grand puzzle, one she’s always trying to put together. Where was she, as a person, when this happened? It’s like she’s the subject of her own psychological experiment, looking back on herself, how she interacted with each man, what it meant in the grand scheme. She tests the men, at times, to see how they’ll react, as if on a fact-finding mission, using her body as a tool. She asks men to do things she know they won’t—e.g., some guys hold her down and take her, others won’t. She tries to smile a lot. She makes empty declarations to try to be more interesting. Or less. While Minot’s story, by its end, moves from the erotic to the pathetic, Jemc’s starts out similarly, but ends up intellectualized. And that’s not a comment on the story itself, but on how she depicts her character, the shift this particular person experiences and how.

What this all adds up to something really fantastic. In Minot’s story, a person keeps giving herself over to lust, hoping something else will stick. In Jemc’s story, the narrator keeps trying new things, hoping to get different reactions, for her to feel something new. So far, she’s not been successful. There’s no indication that she’ll stop trying, though, or care if it takes forever, what others think of her along the way.

Jac Jemc is the author of the novel My Only Wife, also from Dzanc, and her stories appear widely in really good magazines. I love A Different Bed Every Time, and highly recommend. It’s one of my favorite books of shorts, ever, and I’ve only read a third of it. But not for long.

Jac Jemc