September 26, 2016: “The Year We Are Twenty-Three” by Jessica Hollander

Good Monday to you, Story366! Tonight, I’m working on various projects around the office, watching the Cubs, and more or less avoiding the presidential debate. Really, I should be watching, and I more or less I want to, but since I have a few rather large projects that need working on, I’m using those as my excuse to shirk my responsibilities as an American and as a fan of theater. This is historic stuff we’re dealing with, for a lot of reasons. Plus, already this year, the debates have proven to be endlessly entertaining. I mean, it’s one thing to watch the Republicans hopefuls yell at each other, insult one another, weed themselves out with strange, unpresidential behavior (or, in one case, use it to seal the nomination); it’s another thing, however, to watch the winner of that melee face a flawed yet rational and experienced and ultra-qualified politician. In short, I wonder how far the insulting  lying is going to go, if Trump is just going to attack Clinton like he did Jeb Bush, or if he acts more civil, opting instead of the boring but effective Benghazi-email 1-2 combo. I won’t be watching until tomorrow—I really have a lot of work to do—but whatever happens, I’ll watch the clips.

That said, I stumbled upon a political connection in today’s book, In These Times the Home Is a Tired Place by Jessica Hollander, out from the University of North Texas Press as a winner of the Katherine Anne Porter Prize. I read several stories from Hollander’s collection, starting with the title piece, which is a series of deconstructed events in the lives of a particular family, cut into three parts, each part broken into several numbered chapters. This disjointed narrative would have been a good choice for today’s post, as was an earlier story in the collection, “This Kind of Happiness,” about a young pregnant woman who has to make choices about her future. As soon as I started reading “The Year We Are Twenty-Three,” however, it was pretty obvious I was going to write about it instead.

“The Year We Are Twenty-Three” is about a young couple (the female half is the unnamed protagonist), twenty-three years old, fresh out of college, working not-dream jobs, she managing a gym for the dawn shift, he a clerk at a grocery store. Hollander sets up their lives with minute and quirky details, including their whining refrigerator, their discourteously loud neighbors, and the fact that they aren’t married and aren’t planning to change that any time soon. One morning, pre-work, our protagonist turns on the kitchen light to find two cockroaches doing it in the middle of the linoleum floor. She wakes Cedric, her man, who sprays them with Raid, and it’s noted that the roaches try to get away, but can’t, their coitus somehow bonding them in love, then in horrible, poisonous death (soon to be topped off by the stomping of a random shoe). It’s pretty obvious this is a metaphor, this young couple with such loose plans, betrothed by convenience (and sex when they can get it), but really nothing else. Is this pair headed for a horrible death? A horrible breakup? That’s what Hollander is implying, anyway, as she gets things started.

From there, Hollander settles us into the couple’s routine, which is sad and lonely. Our gym manager works from 5 a.m. until 2 p.m. and Cedric works from 2 p.m. until 10 p.m., meaning that she pretty much has to stay up way past her bedtime to spend any time with him at all. It’s a coexistence more than a relationship, but Hollander has them make due. Mainly, they correspond by taping notes to the refrigerator, tidbits of bumper-sticker philosophy, loving and poignant and somewhat related to their lives. It’s a neat device, a clever way for them to communicate; or, really, not communicate.

At work, our protagonist faces a problem that she can’t handle: Half of the people at her gym have decided to be nudists, not only in the locker room, but in the common areas of the gym, and worse, all over the exercise equipment. This group of nudists she dubs the “liberals,” while the group of clothed half of the populace she calls the “conservatives;” see, I told you there was a connection to tonight’s debate! In any case, our hero has to solve the nudist problem or else her boss is going to fire her. This is the story that Hollander creates for us, a couple trying to figure out life while one half of it tries to solve a pretty interesting (and also metaphorical) problem at the same time. (And to note, a rare occasion when I’m for the conservatives—gotta wear pants at the gym, folks.)

I won’t go any further with plot details, as you’ll have to read for yourself to find out how the issues get worked out (if they do), both the nudist problem and this couple’s relationship. Hollander employs the refrigerator notes to the max, the device becoming more than a device, both a respite and a crutch. I loved this story for this and a lot of reasons.

In These Times the Home Is a Tired Place is filled with family and relationship stories, Jessica Hollander really twisting the dynamic of the domestic landscape in each and every one. Theme isn’t the only thing to point out, though, as many of the stories utilize interesting forms as well as varied syntax, each piece original in voice as well as style: Hollander obviously pays as much attention to how the stories sound as she does to what happens. On top of that, each story offers something new, yet also works as part of a cohesive unit. This is a fabulous collection.