For every book we read during the book club, one of our book club members will write a review. This way anyone who couldn’t be there, can still join in with the fun! Roy den Boer is taking over as our main reviewer for the book club books, judging all that we have picked.
A short story collection is very different from a novel in what the reader learns of the author. In the novel we see the author dig deep, while a collection presents us an oeuvre in miniature. As we see the starts, middles and ends of story after story it becomes easier to get a sense of the author’s storytelling style, thematic interests and character types. The stylistic repetitions and narrative crutches come into starker relief.
Eleven short stories populate the pages of A. M. Homes’ collection Things You Should Know and pretty quickly you see the way most of these stories operate. There’s really two types of short stories in Things You Should Know. There’s the longer ones that really dig into the character and situation presented and then there’s the shorter ones that have one central conceit and don’t go deeper. The longer ones are the more succesful short stories, in the shorter ones the collection tends to fall apart.
The good stories are defined by having a depth not found in the others. Homes’ cold and minimalistic style is served by getting to really know the characters beyond a single trait or event. Georgica, one of the best stories, focuses on a woman trying to get pregnant from used condoms. Gross and weird, but as we get to know her it starts to sort of make some sense. And that’s where these stories are at their best, when absurd situations are injected with humanity. An existential sadness haunts the pages of Things You Should Know and Homes is best when really questioning the sadness.
The short, not very good stories fail in this respect. Most explicitly Please Remain Calm. It’s a slight story focused on a man who keeps repeating to his wife that he wants to commit suicide, then they are in a car crash, survive and he decides he doesn’t actually want to commit suicide. This story just doesn’t land. We never delve into this man and his suicidal tendencies. The conclusion feels trite and unearned. The story isn’t inherently terrible, but Homes’ style simply doesn’t serve this story. A story that completely turns on emotion is rendered unemotional and, as a result, completely uninvolving.
The minimalist style, it should be noted, is very readable. It might not serve every story told here, but it never gets in the way of turning the page. Though it’s also never sticky – there’s no quotes or descriptions that linger in the mind. What the words portray sticks around, the words themselves not so much. Two of the stories contain magical realism/surrealism that Homes’ style just doesn’t live up to. Raft in Water, Floating in particular seems to call for something more poetic and mystical than Homes has up for offer. A shape shifting coyote/duck just doesn’t fit into A. M. Homes’ words or her world as painted in other stories.
Not any story in particular, but the book as a whole suffers from repetition. The problem isn’t that too many stories contain a crumbling marriage. The problem isn’t even that too many stories contain the exact kind of crumbling marriage. The problem is that too many characters respond in exactly the same way to their crumbling marriage. The sentiment “we’ve been growing apart the past couple of months, and I don’t know what to do” becomes too common a refrain for it to remain interesting.
As a collection Things You Should Know contains too many duds. Five out of the eleven stories don’t work for me, and that’s quite a lot, but luckily they’re the short ones. Most of the pages are dedicated to really excellent stories like Georgica, Rockets Round The Moon and The Former First Lady and the Football Hero. And since you can fit three lackluster stories into any single one of those, all in all the collection’s worth a read.