Good evening, Story366! Today was a day like any other. Not very interesting, but unlike most days of my life: I pretty much slept all day. The planets were aligned to make this happen, as that’s the only way such a luxury, once every seventy-six years, can occur. There were no classes today—what MSU calls “Dead Day,” a day of study before finals—my kids both had school all day, and I’ve been getting over a bad head and chest cold. Karen had some work to do with her classes, so once I got the boys up and to school, it was all me, a bottle of generic Dayquil, and the big, comfy bed. I took three separate naps today, reading and answering emails in-between, and for the most part, feel better. But I got to sleep all day! How awesome is that?
As noted, between glorious, illness-killing naps today, I got to read and what I read was a couple of stories from Helen Oyeyemi‘s collection What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours, out from Riverhead, one of the more celebrated collections of 2016. After seeing it pop up on several year-end best lists this past week, I was glad to finally crack the spine and see what the big deal was for myself. With no title story to go to, I randomly chose a piece from the back, “Freddy Barandov Checks … In?” a story about a kid named Freddy who lives at a hotel with his parents, both of whom work there, and the adventures he has in romance and the role of head maintenance man he’s supposed to inherit from his father. Then I read “‘Sorry’ Doesn’t Sweeten Her Tea,” which is about this nameless guy who is housesitting for his close friend … kind of (more on that in a bit). Some of the characters in these two stories overlap, by the way, as Freddy’s love interest happens to be the daughter of our house sitter’s boyfriend, make these stories interconnected. Both are also similar in the way they spend several pages setting up one story, then diverge from that path and tell a completely different story, using the same characters. As I’ve only read two of the stories—these are all long pieces, ranging from thirty to sixty pages—I can’t say if that’s what every piece in What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours” does, but hey, two out of two is worth mentioning.
“‘Sorry’ Doesn’t Sweeten Her Tea,” as noted, is about this guy who’s watching his friend’s apartment for two years as he’s fulfilling a military obligation. This friend, Chedorlaomer, Ched for short, has this Siamese fighting fish named Boudicca and the first few pages are about caring for Boudicca, then several more pages focus on the narrator’s relationship with Ched, a lifelong friend, the two escaping to the UK together from Bezin, which, according to Wikipedia, is in Iran. Our narrator also works at his aunt’s weight loss clinic, which prompts an anecdote about a lost wedding ring. Finally, we meet the narrator’s boyfriend, Noor, and his two teenaged daughters Dayang and Aisha, that girl from the other story.
This is where “‘Sorry’ Doesn’t Sweeten Her Tea” settles in, with this family, fifteen pages in. Aisha, as it turns out, is obsessed by this pop star by the name of Matyas Füst, who seems like a harmless teenage obsession. Like most obsessions, this one turns dark, especially when Füst is accused, on a much-circulated video, of beating up a junkie, by said battered junkie, the camera tracing her plethora of bruises and cuts as she tells her story. This causes a dilemma for Noor and his daughter, and by extension, our protagonist, as the family doesn’t know how to reckon one member’s idol with this monster. Aisha is devastated, but wants to believe it’s not true—enter lots of denial from her and Füst’s media machien—but eventually, it comes out as the truth: This once-harmless pop star is now a junkie-thrashing monster.
I won’t go any further into the story, leaving something for you to discover on your own, but I will say this: Once Oyeyemi gets going on this Matyas Füst business, she goes all in. What, I wondered, happened to the Siamese fighting fish, to Ched’s apartment, to the weight-loss clinic, and that wedding ring? It seems as if “‘Sorry’ Doesn’t Sweeten Her Tea,” coming in at forty-two pages, has a few stories inside. Perhaps some of these other plot lines are resolved in later stories, perhaps not. But to be sure, Oyeyemi doesn’t follow any traditional story script, no Freitag’s Pyramid, and I liked that. Of course, as a teacher, I tried to make connections between everything, especially between the nature of that Siamese fighting fish, needing to be alone lest it kills its tankmate, and Füst, who is also violent, but wow, that’s stretching. In the end, I settled on the idea that I shouldn’t be reading it like I read most stories, because this story, and the other one I read, aren’t like most stories, that they’re not really following the rules of arc or denouement. We meet interesting characters who does interesting things and are engaged with interesting people. That, whittled down, might be the extent of it. I admire that about these stories.
What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours is a celebrated collection by Helen Oyeyemi, a book I’m glad I read from, glad that I featured here on Story366. It’s a collection that’s truly different from any I’ve read this year, or ever, Oyeyemi with a knack for storytelling that challenged my notion of what short stories are and can be.