There is a certain magic or alchemy required for strange stories to work. Miranda July and George Saunders are two contemporary writers who have discovered this alchemy. They write surreal and strange stories that illuminate the elemental parts of our humanity. They make us feel, not just think. Everything Life Has to Offer by Shari Kasman is a short story collection with an abundance of strange and a lack of heart. While descriptions of Kasman’s stories could be mistaken for descriptions of July’s or Saunders’ stories, that is where the similarities end. Where July and Saunders consistently find unusual details and plot turns that surprise, Kasman’s tend to distract; where July and Saunders build towards powerful moments of emotional resonance, Kasman’s stories tend to end without a payoff.
In terms of premise, the stories in Everything Life Has to Offer are diverse. Some, like “Pacific Theme,” in which a couple goes on an elaborately themed staycation to save money, are set in a world much like our own. Others, like “A Big Small-Scale Attraction,” in which a special juice allows African animals to be humanely shrunk for a miniature safari attraction housed in a retrofitted warehouse, are utterly bizarre.
The characters in Everything Life Has to Offer hit a lot of the same notes. Kasman’s protagonists are united by their isolation. They are all either by themselves, or involved in dependent partnerships or makeshift communities of misfits. Her protagonists are variations on a few themes. Some have naively put their hopes in the wrong places, like the narrator in “Three Hours and Thirty-Six Minutes to Vegan Gravy,” who is driving to the Huge-Zen Spa Centre in New Mexico, her car filled with expensive yoga mats recommended to her by the inestimably wise and grounded Guru Wes. Others are unable to accept (or see) their own shortcomings and failures, like the narrator in “The Pinnacle of my Career,” who is tricked into seeing each loss of power at work as a promotion. These stories are all told in the first person or limited third person voice.
By continually giving us access to these similarly strange characters’ thoughts and feelings, Kasman creates the biggest problem with the collection: the homogeneity of voice. While it is possible for successful short story collections to be consistent in voice (think Alistair MacLeod), Kasman’s protagonists are too grating to allow it. By the end of Everything Life Has to Offer, I felt as though I had just finished a marathon of surreal coffee dates and phone calls with needy people from a bizarro dimension. The naive and deluded narrators wore on me as a reader, especially in the second half of the collection. How might these stories be read independently of one another, if they had some room to breathe? I can imagine finding them refreshing amid a collection of more traditional stories, but together, they represent too much of the same thing.
While many of the stories in Everything Life Has to Offer meander towards abrupt, unsatisfying endings, in “I’m Going to Ethiopia” Kasman constructs a compelling narrative arc. Here, there’s a second person construction at work that is not revealed until the end of the story. It turns out the narrator isn’t simply telling the story, but is telling the story to a specific you. Reading it, you realize the rest of the story is a sort of preamble to asking you to join her on this trip to Ethiopia. By putting the reader into the story in these final paragraphs, she connects the reader to Irma, a radio contest winner ditched by her travel partner, making her plight immediate and potent while adding coherence and clarity to what came before. The same sense of immediacy and potency could have benefited the rest of the collection.
Kasman is at her best when she gets out of her characters’ heads and lets them interact with people whose view of the world is less skewed than their own. When she gives characters contrasting companions, she manages to reveal their humanity. Take this beautiful passage from “First There was Whistling,” a story of an overeager home-care worker: “Gary said woolly mammoths were extinct because of their unfortunate situation of trying to eat all the world’s grass and rule the Earth, but I know the real truth is they became extinct because the Earth was overwhelmed and wasn’t capable of providing a home for such huge, wild, intense, inspiring creatures.”
This is Kasman’s first book-length publication. Very few first collections, especially ones with such ambitious protagonists and premises, hit all the right notes. Michael Christie comes close in The Beggar’s Garden and Amy Jones’ What Boys Like is wonderful. Like Everything Life has to Offer, these collections contain characters with skewed views of reality. But Christie’s and Jones’s collections work. Kasman, who also works as a multidisciplinary artist and musician, has written a collection that reads more like a series of experiments than a polished finished product. Her stories are inventive in premise, but fall short in execution.
Invisible Publishing | 176 pages | $19.95 | paper | ISBN: 978-1926743844