I mean this in the kindest and most kinetic way: the stories in Monica McFawn’s debut collection, Bright Shards of Someplace Else, remind me of that moment before a car accident. Split seconds elongate to a prolonged nowhere-time when you have a few languorous moments to notice the oddest details—why did I buy that dumb hanging air freshener, who the hell would still have a McCain/Palin bumper sticker, and by the way, what’s with gravity?—before the inevitable crunch and whimper. Not that these stories ever end in high drama. Characters spin slightly out of control, and rarely do McFawn’s stories click neatly shut; instead, we’re hanging on with them in that slow revolution before impact, often more aware than they are of what set these bodies in motion.
The “shards” in the title refer to one character’s memory of the sparks behind her closed eyelids after her stepfather struck her as a child. What she felt then was an unexpected and sudden release; the Technicolor vision behind her eyes was “evidence of another world seeping through.” To me, the “shards” refer to the well-articulated characters in this collection. They have no idea just how broken they are.
What perfect serendipity that her collection won this year’s Flannery O’Connor Award. Like O’Connor, McFawn populates her finely crafted stories with characters that are both well drawn and inherently contradictory. In “Snippet and the Rainbow Bridge,” the four central characters are preoccupied with the fate of Snippet, a pony with a broken leg. As his life hangs in the balance—the horse is suspended in a sling in the barn—all four appear both recognizable and unique. Stable co-owner Judy “is forty-two; like a twelve-year-old girl left in the element for thirty years, she is faded, with faint cracks for smile lines, but her childhood form is essentially unchanged, right down to the sloppy long hair and perky joint-floppiness that marks her movements.” One of the vets coming to Snippet’s aid has a penchant for saving doomed animals (and women), and “his looks second him. His eyes are wide set and show a lot of bright white, so his hazel irises appear to be sinking in milk.” What at first appears to be a telling detail, though, really isn’t. At the end of the story, Snippet’s fate still hangs fire while the characters pursue their own motivations, blindly.
In “Key Phrases,” the sloppy office worker Mol, soon to be fired (though this, too, is held in suspense) reminds the narrator of his “heavily furnished rental, full of antiques and personal baubles.” Mol “was like all that musty furniture—oppressive while ostensibly offering hospitality and comfort.” Mol, like many other characters, perfectly embodies her past, carrying it around like a rattling R.V. on its hitch, without the least awareness that she’s doing so. Similarly, the grieving man who throws his girlfriend’s purse out of the car because he has internalized his father’s aesthetics in “Ornament and Crime” can’t help himself. McFawn’s talent is that we tend to collude with her characters until their actions become bizarre; after all, the purse does appear “opulent, heavy-bellied, and insolent… like the gelatinous skein of fat at the margins of cheap meat cuts.” The humor of this scene is that the narrator has just returned to the car because he couldn’t find a place to put down his father’s ashes. The father who despised ugliness has been “pressed and fired into a small flattish cube.”
What I most relish about each of these stories is that a tidy resolution or a character’s self-awareness isn’t the point. From the solipsistic, alcoholic nanny in the first story to the lyricist who has lost faith in his drug-addicted son yet denies his own complicity in the last story, most of the characters aren’t accountable for their own neuroses. Danny, the lyricist, comes closest to a breakthrough when he muses, “I feel like the whole problem is my perception.” But ultimately we’re left with the sad fact that most people can’t get outside their own perception and probably won’t change. Admirable for the way she can plumb the human psyche, McFawn holds up a mirror: the epiphanies can only be ours when we realize how stuck we are in ourselves. Perhaps it’s through reading fiction that we have the chance to come unstuck.
– Amy Pence’s (www.amypence.com) poetry collections include The Decadent Lovely and Armor, Amour. Her short fiction has appeared in Silk Road, The Molotov Cocktail, and Storyglossia. Other reviews are online at the Colorado Review, Harpur Palate, and The Rumpus.