blackbirdonline journalFall 2016  Vol. 15 No. 2
an online journal of literature and the arts
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Review | You May See a Stranger, by Paula Whyman
TriQuarterly, 2016

spacer You May See a Stranger (TriQuarterly, 2016)

“‘How do people know which way to go?’” the protagonist of Paula Whyman’s debut collection, You May See A Stranger, asks a friend, early on in the book. “‘Do most people go the right way from the beginning?’”

In these ten stories, we see Miranda Weber ask herself the same question, time and again, as we follow her from high school up through late middle age: from unsavory boyfriends and an unplanned pregnancy, into somewhat quieter but no less fraught stages of life defined by cohabitation, marriage, child-rearing, and an empty nest. In interviews, Whyman cites Lorrie Moore and Alice Munro as influences, and like these authors she focuses in a barbed yet clear-eyed way on the experiences of her female characters, especially the damaging relationships Miranda has with the men in her life—from high school lovers, alluringly dodgy bartenders, and nightmare bosses, to her first serious boyfriend Pogo, who waits in the wings even after she escapes into married life with a stable but aloof engineer named Devin. It is tempting to talk about Whyman’s work in universalizing terms. It captures some inherent imbalance in heterosexual relationships, and some lingering inequity in the expectations and allowances women face even in supposedly enlightened circles (this one happens to be current-day Washington, D.C., but don’t expect to see any politics or grassy memorials here). Yet Miranda, in her strangeness and sensuality, with her acerbic wit and knack for repeating mistakes, demands to be read as the idiosyncratically free spirit that she is.

When we first meet Miranda, in the story “Driver’s Education,” she is fifteen and sitting in class, listening to lectures on judgment, caution, and one’s responsibility to the others on the road. More often, though, she distracts herself thinking about the two boys in the class who catch her eye: one diligent and clean-cut (Kevin), one rowdy and disrespectful (Todd). She believes, with the fervor of a high-schooler, that her choices in this moment will define the course of her life: “Was I a Todd-kind-of-girl or a Kevin-kind-of-girl? Why did I feel like I had to choose? Did anyone else have to?” Todd and Kevin represent two familiar ends of the spectrum, the studious nice guy of uninspiring make-out sessions and the flannel-wearing, wisecracking dropout whose muscles make Miranda wonder “if this was how animals felt.” Miranda, a connoisseur of furtively glimpsed armpit hair and half-hidden moles, guided by what she calls “my normal, within-bounds horny self,” tends to be a Todd-kind-of-girl, and sees, even as a teenager, that some rules are easily broken:

Right turn on red. Did I know about that before? I never paid attention when I went places in the car until that class. The meaning of a red light was always unambiguous: you stop. End of story. Now, it seemed, it was okay to go on red, as long as you took some reasonable precautions.

Throughout the collection, Miranda weaves between the two lanes of caution and risk, in her romantic relationships as well as her dealings with her parents and Debbie, her intellectually handicapped sister. The questions that emerge are: What might constitute “reasonable precautions”? And what are the consequences when mere caution doesn’t suffice?

In You May See A Stranger, the repercussions are dire. Miranda’s dalliance with rakish Pogo leads to an abortion in her early twenties that fills her with remorse and is followed by a period of club-hopping, drugs, and jobs and boyfriends that never seem to last. Her darkest days, charted in the virtuosic story “Dubrovnik 1989,” comprise a series of moments that, in Miranda’s telling, rival each other for “the lowest I’d sunk,” including a fling with a VCR repairman who tells her, after the fact, that he may have been exposed to infection by his needle-using ex; a budding affair with an older married man who feeds her mousse in expensive restaurants, then cops a feel in an alley before sending her away with cab fare; and a disturbing visit to a heroin dealer that leaves Miranda shaken by the company she has been keeping. What rescues the story from being merely a litany of post-collegiate humiliations or a morality tale is a pleasingly decentralized quality to the narrative, an ability to meander from scenes of awkward sexual encounters and drug deals to the innocent optimism of Miranda and her friend Lucas: saving up for a trip to Croatia that may never happen, making up stories to impress attractive strangers at bars, splurging on dinner at a fashionably exotic restaurant they can ill afford. The halting glimpses of progress we see throughout the story eventually amount to real, if circumstantial, change for Miranda—in her first days of playing at settling down in a new job, she meets the man who will become her husband. Listed this way it all risks sounding schematic, but “Dubrovnik” breathes with the hesitance and mess of real life, reminiscent of Munro with its vivid capacity to surprise.

If Miranda’s abortion hovers behind the risky decision-making of “Dubrovnik,” the suicide of Miranda’s older sister Donna in “Jump” reverberates through the second half of the collection. Here, after playing a minor role in the earlier stories, Donna—an embarrassment to Miranda in front of her school friends, a rival for their parents’ attention—takes a seemingly impulsive leap from her high-rise balcony. This event comes to embody the danger that can’t be foreseen or accounted for, the terrible shock the family’s precautions failed to guard against. Donna’s death disrupts the uneasy détente of Miranda’s marriage to Devin, which has quickly settled into a sullen routine of half-whispered arguments and tensely silent drives in the car. In the immediate fallout from the suicide, Miranda, blindsided and looking for explanations, or distractions, pictures the couple in the apartment above Donna’s (she even invents names for them), interrupted during their lovemaking by “a sound, like a dull knock, and a wheezing, like the air leaving a balloon, and a thunk.” Following her anxious delusions as far as they will take her, Miranda asks, “Did Donna tire of listening to Jimmy and Angela go at it day after day while she had no boyfriend, while she heard no grunting that originated on her side of the drywall?” No, she finally concludes, “that is mundane.”

Sex—or lack thereof—is a powerful source of motivation for these characters, especially Miranda, but Whyman’s book is not mundane enough to suggest that it is the only motivation. At various moments in this collection Miranda wearily expresses a desire for “neat resolution” in the stories of her life, but concludes, “that’s not the way the world operates.” She is at her strongest when she eschews easy choices or causal relationships, and a signature flourish throughout these stories is the refusal of an orderly ending, the turn to the resonant (if inconclusive) image. The end of “Jump” finds Miranda out on the fatal balcony, considering her sister’s final moments with a dark fascination: “If I could imagine what led her to launch herself over the railing, I might do it, too.” Testing the angles, she hooks one leg over the railing, pausing and taking in the scene. Eventually she steps away from the ledge and begins to clean up an overturned flowerpot. Symbolically freighted and guardedly hopeful as this gesture might be, Whyman avoids hollow sentiment once again with her keen eye for the double-edged detail, making the lingering scars from this tragedy painfully clear: “I gather up the spilled soil with my hands,” Miranda narrates, “scraping my fingers on the rough concrete.”

At this point in the collection, Miranda’s voice starts to take on a haunted, unhinged quality. In “Bad Side In,” the specter of the Beltway Sniper in her D.C. neighborhood, just one year after the September 11 attacks, has led her to commission the building of a high fence around her home, which she hopes “will keep the bad guys out” and keep her children in. Her thoughts swirl with news anchors’ warnings of white box trucks, child-sized gas masks, and basement stashes of canned goods and duct tape in case of chemical attack. Miranda’s erratic free associations lead her, eventually, to thoughts of L’Enfant and his designs for the city of Washington:

All the major roads in D.C. lead to traffic circles, eventually. Once you reach a circle, you’re forced to make important decisions in a matter of seconds. . . . If you don’t know what to do or where to go, you’ll cause an accident. If you don’t know how to drive around a circle, the safest option is to keep going around and going around until you figure it out. If you stop going around, you’ll be hit. You can’t stop. L’Enfant intended for these circles to be destinations; instead they’re obstacles.

The later stories in this collection find Miranda returning to her own circles of compulsive worry and erotic imagination. This form—the collection of linked, chronological stories, all with the same narrator—effectively demonstrates the ways that Miranda herself is incapable of change over time, but even more interestingly, as in collections like Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteredge, it shows how Miranda’s inner hang-ups begin to permeate and define the lives of those around her. In “Threat Potential,” on a family trip to Mexico, Miranda’s fears come to the surface as she pores over crime statistics on the beach town where they stay, keeping a close eye on her young son and daughter as they go swimming or traipse through Mayan ruins. The children themselves have come to embody the two opposing extremes that have guided Miranda’s decisions throughout her life: her daughter boldly kayaks into the sea and clambers up pyramids alone, while their son hugs close to his mother, wary of barracudas and competitive sports. Like the ruins the family explores on a day trip, this story spookily resonates with “the past rising up from under the dirt and breaking into the present.”

For their part, Miranda and her husband clash over how to deal with their children; Miranda thinks Devin is too hard on her son, who prefers, at soccer games, “to sit on the sidelines and pull up wide blades of grass to use for whistles.” She is less sure of how to accommodate her daughter’s independent spirit, which lands her in a child psychologist’s office in “Self Report,” discussing what to do after intimate photos of the girl have spread, via cell phone, among the children at her school. Devin is notably absent in this story, and indeed, for the rest of the collection; all we know is that he thinks the photo controversy is a “family matter,” he opposes the appointment with the psychologist, and that “whatever she ended up telling him about it before or after the fact would lead to an argument.” Since their children have left the nest, Miranda says, she and Devin have discovered “that long ago we’d both disappeared into our own lives. When we reached for each other, it was an afterthought in the blind dark.” In the absence of the “threat potential” of life with young children, Miranda clings less fiercely to the safety of married life, and her attention begins to wander away from Devin, just in time for Pogo to saunter back into the picture.

In “Just Sex,” the final story of the collection, Miranda circles back to the old obstacles she faced as a much younger woman. Pogo’s return first excites her desires, heightened by an onrush of premenopausal hormones, but his presence soon dredges up memories of the pregnancy that drove them apart. Triggered by the recollection of Pogo’s reasoning for why they wouldn’t be good parents—“‘We know each other  . . . So we know what cloth we’re cut from. Don’t we?’”—all of the old questions about identity and direction come back. Is it “just sex” Miranda is after, meeting Pogo in a hotel in the middle of the day? Or, after twenty years, has she finally come up with a satisfying response to Pogo’s question?

Near the climax of “Just Sex,” Miranda has the unshakeable feeling that, like Lot’s wife, she has turned back to gaze into the abyss of the past. You May See A Stranger asks, can it ever be too late to steer ourselves out of the ruts of compulsion and trauma? True to life, and to the credit of Whyman’s talent, for Miranda—as for us—there is always time for more mistakes to be made, always time for another round with the demons of the past. And yet, as much as we worry for Miranda, or tire of her destructive tendencies, her appealing deadpan and persistent search for self make us reluctant to look away. This may boil down to the simplest of explanations: We want things to turn out all right for her, so we keep reading. Exiting Pogo’s hotel room for almost the last time, she pauses at the elevator and glances backward down the hallway. At long last, she reports—surprised, relieved, disbelieving even herself—“He was standing outside his room staring after me. I didn’t turn to salt."  

Paula Whyman is the author of the short story collection You May See a Stranger (TriQuarterly Books / Northwestern University Press, 2016). Her work has appeared in Virginia Quarterly Review, McSweeney’s Quarterly, Ploughshares, Washington Post, and elsewhere. She has received fellowships from The MacDowell Colony, Yaddo, and Rivendell Writers’ Colony.

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