Good morning, Story366!
Today is a day of rushing. Today I have three Zoom meetings, all in the afternoon, and by 5:30, I have to meet up with Boy Scouts and take them on a weekend campout. Since I’ll be gone until Sunday, that also means I have to write tomorrow’s post and schedule it for tomorrow, as the campsite in Arkansas I’m going to doesn’t have reliable service. I also have a grocery pick-up and have to pack the car up for the trip. So, this is going to be a short intro, me explaining why this is such a short intro. There you go!
Today I read from Kate Walbert‘s 2019 collection, She Was Like That: New and Selected Stories, out from Scribner. This, as you might guess, has some stories from Walbert’s previous books, plus some stories never collected before. It’s all new to me, though, as I’ve not read Walbert’s previous collections, and really only know her name because she’s published a lot of books and has that kind of reputation. So for post #1 today, let’s talk some Kate Walbert.
Walbert has a pretty distinct style, a style that you’ll pick up on as soon as you delve into her stories. And that’s an apt way to segue into this description, as there’s definitely a feeling, when starting a story, that you’re jumping into the middle of things. Walbert isn’t one for exposition at the start of her tales, telling us where we are, what’s going on, or even who the players are. We sort of merge into traffic with these characters, pick up with a protagonist, who’s in situation, living out a certain task on a certain day, and from there we need to pick up what’s going on. It takes a few pages, sometimes, to feel adjusted, to feel comfortable in these stories, as you suddenly find yourself in the middle of a conversation, without much context, in a place that’s unclear, talking to people to whom you haven’t been introduced. I think this is the strength of Walbert’s work, what sets her aside from most authors—it’s a different way to tell a story, as if wondering into someone’s head as they’re on some adventure, in some predicament, and trying to guess what’s going on, what’s going to happen, and what any particular protagonist is all about.
The most forthcoming story I read, “M&M World,” is first up in the book. This one actually lays out the mission of the story early on: Ginny, our protagonist, has been asked by her daughters to take them to M&M World in Times Square. She’s avoided it for a long time, but she’s promised, and finally relents. She and the two girls, Olivia and Maggie, head off on the long journey, traversing the dangers of New York City streets and other temptations; they have to stop for ice cream, have to pet the Central Park horses, all of which drive Ginny to distraction. During this trip, we’re mostly in Ginny’s head, as she considers past family adventures, and especially the recent divorce from her husband, known only as “the girls’ father.” When they finally arrive at their desired tourist stop, the worst-case scenario goes down: Ginny loses one of the girls in the store, so many people, so many distractions, all on top of what she’s got going on inside her head.
“Esperanza” is much more mysterious as you enter into the story. This one’s about Esperanza, aka, Baby, a woman who spends the early part of the story considering various parts of her life, including some time spent down in Chilé. As the story moves forward, we realize that Baby is in a therapy session, the in-patient kind, and isn’t exactly there by choice. We meet various characters inside the facility, including her mother, who visits her, as well as different people from her past as she muddles through her thoughts. Eventually, we see poor Baby hooked up to electrodes—it’s that type of facility—her mother watching as the world tries to make sense of her.
The title story, “She Was Like That,” also puts us en medias res, this time with Sharon Peterson. Sharon is driving through New York City with Ginny (and yes, I wondered if this was the same Ginny from “M&M World,” but got no definitive answer). She and Ginny chat, but by this time, I’ve already come to understand that a lot of the conversation is between Sharon and herself.
Along the way, a woman named Miranda, along with a baby strapped to her chest, join the fray. It’s around this time that I realized Sharon is driving for some sort of taxi or shuttle service, and these people are only her recent acquaintances, her passengers. Yes, Walbert treats their conversation as if they’re old friends, the friendly banter serving as a good backdrop for Sharon’s thoughts.
These thoughts focus a lot on Virginia Woolf, it turns out, as Sharon seems to be somewhat of an expert. In fact, as the story moves onward, we get the hint that Sharon isn’t merely a shuttle driver, but also a literature professor at a woman’s college. Even further, it’s implied, subtly or not, that she’s no longer in possession of that post—might be why she’s shuttling strangers to the bus station in the middle of the week.
We meet a couple more passengers as we lose others, thus the life of a shuttle driver—friends are frequent but fleeting. The passengers add their own little tales, their own personalities, all mixing in with what we see from Sharon’s interior. And again, there’s not a lot of exposition going on—we’re just floating in and out of the conversation as we get flashes of Sharon’s life, practically her stream of consciousness, as she tackles her day. Sharon’s destination? Wherever her new friends dictate.
Kate Walbert’s approach to storytelling is unique, harkening back to Modernist masters like Joyce and Faulkner in her She Was Like That. I enjoyed those authors’ books, what it was like to venture inside the minds of their various characters, and Walbert does her best approximation of that here. I like reading stories like that, almost like a maze you have to enter into. It’s a good journey, finding your way to the center, finding what makes these characters distinct. Time well spent with these stories today.