March 11, 2020: “Dead Air” by Nino Cipri

Hey hey, Story366!

The preamble to the book/story section of the blog will be short today. Sometimes I write a thousand words before I even mention the book, but tonight, it will be less than that. Even since I posted last night, the world has gone a little crazy, the coronavirus taking over our lives. Many more universities—though not mine—have moved classes online until further notice. The NBA suspended its season when one of its own players tested positive moments before a game in Oklahoma City. And now Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson have coronavirus. I told the Karen this morning this is surely the biggest news story in our lifetime since 9/11. I really hope it does not end up eclipsing that story.

Worse, two people I care about are currenlty in quarantine/have the virus. One is a writer friend, who posted a message on FB about being alone in a remote room in the hospital, not feeling at all well, and crying as a doctor told her she probably has coronavirus, though no actual help was coming: Just isolation while they figure out what the fuck to do. Soon after I saw that, one of my online students emailed me from St. Louis, saying she probably has it, that a doctor is 95 percent sure, though since there is no testing available, she can’t get a solid diagnosis. She’s young and normally healthy, though she now feels very, very ill, only getting worse. Ridiculously, she was worried about her grade, that I wouldn’t accept late assignments and give her a zero. I tried to reassure her that my class is the least of her worries, to not think about it, but have yet to hear back.

I’m sure coronavirus talk will dominate this blog in the coming weeks, but it’s been a helluva day and midnight isn’t that far away. On to the story.

Today, I read from Nino Cipri‘s collection Homesick, out in 2019 from Dzanc Books as a winner of the Dzanc Short Fiction Prize. I had not read Cipri’s work before today, so of course, in I dove in.

I read the first four stories in Cipri’s book, two of which are pretty traditional stories—characters, plot, conflict, paragraphed prose etc.—while two use different formats/structures/approaches. The opener, “A Silly Love Story,” is kind of just that, about a guy who falls in love with a multi-gendered/non-binary person. It’s a fun and sweet story and I liked the simple characterizing and description, how these two people come together. Next up was “Which Super Little Dead Girl™ Are You?” which is a quiz concerning a group of superhero dead zombie girls, made up of short, simple questions followed by long, complicated answers to choose from. The quiz reveals a lot about the world in which these dead girls, and the quiz, exist. At the end, you can even score your results! The fourth story, “She Hides Sometimes,” is about a woman caring for her ailing mother, while at the same time, large portions of their house disappear around them, one by one. Cipri has a lot of range, isn’t afraid to take risks. No matter what structure or approach they used, I was intrigued and rewarded for playing along.

The most fascinating piece is “Dead Air,” which is a lot of different types of stories rolled into one. “Dead Air” features Nita, an artist embarking on a new project: She’s going to interview every person she’s slept with, asking them personal questions about their union, be it for one night or something longer. The story is told as a transcript of Nita’s recordings, complete with a log of what’s said, plus bracketed info like time stamps and dead-air indicators. Nita starts her project with Maddie, a woman with whom she’s just woken from a sudden hook up. Maddie agrees to be recorded—sort of as it’s already happening—and the two women briefly discuss their encounter from the night before. Maddie is a bit coy, but mostly game for this weird morning-after request.

I thought that the next entry, every entry, would be a new lover for Nita—à la Susan Minot’s “Lust”—but no, it’s another interview with Maddie. Apparently, the two hit it off enough to meet up again. In fact, the whole story is about Maddie, about Nita’s relationship with her, not some kind of sex inventory … like Susan Minot’s “Lust.”

The relationship/interview/art project grows and develops until Nita presses Maddie about the scars on her back, a question that sets Maddie off, sees her leave Nita for a while. The two eventually reconcile, continuing their relationship and the interviews, but not before Nita more or less stalks her, delving into her personal life She finds out that Maddie was indeed in a car accident in her hometown, outside Seattle, and that the other woman in the car with her disappeared and is still missing. It’s at this point when the story turns from an unconventionally told love story to a love story with a mystery. I loved that turn and read on with great interest.

Nita continues to press Maddie about the car accident, turning more into a report/private investigator than an artist or sociologist. When Maddie invites Nita to her hometown for the holidsy—Maddie hasn’t been back in five years, not since the accident—Nita jumps on the chance and the two head to the Northwest.

I don’t think I’ll go any further into the plot; I never give away the ending of the stories here on Story366, but in this case, with a mystery, I especially want to steer clear of all-out spoilers. Cipri takes switches the type of story that “Dead Air” is again, perhaps twice, pulling me through the pages, making me read as quickly as I could to get to the ending. It’s a story unlike any of read—and I’ve read transcript stories before—a story that stayed in my head, distracted me until I could write about it here.

Homesick, Nino Cipri’s debut collection, flexes a lot of creative muscle. The stories are all compelling, clever tales with distinct, well drawn characters and a sense of wonder and amazement to them, as if they know they’re really unconventional pieces and can’t help but flaunt it. I enjoyed my time with this book today, glad to get to know another new writer, one with so much to offer.