JANUARY 6, 2017
WRITERS OF ALL DISCIPLINES have explored modern technology’s detriment to interpersonal relationships through articles on ghosting, novels that satirize tech culture, books about teenage girls and social media, et cetera. Amie Barrodale’s debut story collection, You Are Having a Good Time, makes today’s most documented subject feel as fresh as ever. Featuring deeply strange characters, unexpected plot twists, and a variety of convincing voices, You Are Having a Good Time offers unique perspectives on the challenges facing anyone trying to connect in today’s world of instant communication and diminishing face-to-face contact.
The collection’s first story, “William Wei,” for which Barrodale won The Paris Review’s Plimpton Prize in 2011, portrays a young man’s isolation in a contemporary city. Wei narrates the story in a flat, affectless voice. He begins by describing a passionless encounter with a woman he brings home, because he likes her shoes. We later learn that he works with major fashion houses, but the fact that Wei’s interest is more sartorial than physical raises some questions about his proclivities. Perhaps he is just out of touch with his body and his desires and lacks confidantes with whom to discuss the subject (time spent with friends is conspicuously absent in his account of how he spends his days). Regardless, Wei conveys a striking lack of capacity for or interest in intimate relationships.
He then tells the reader that he was “mostly celibate, except for [his] upstairs neighbor, until she moved away. She was this Indian girl.” Following her departure, Wei “was alone for a while after that.” Given the fleeting and superficial nature of his romantic associations and the nonexistence of any other relationships, one might argue that he was alone before that, too. He ends his 10- and 12-hour work days with hot yoga, describing a Rear Window–esque scene: “They had a studio between my home and work […] so that […] while you were sweating, you could look in at people living their lives and see all these slow-moving domestic scenes, like a man standing in front of a microwave.” Wei lives vicariously through his neighbors’ actions. He is interested in other people, but at a distant remove.
Within the first couple of pages, with clipped, clean, sentences, Barrodale masterfully and succinctly creates a portrait of a man deeply detached from his environment and the people around him. In Wei’s world, sex is meaningless, work takes precedence, and voyeurism becomes a predominant method of understanding those around him. The “slow-moving domestic scenes,” as seen from a yoga studio, exemplify the dreamy, otherworldly, and distorted vision that pervades the story. Wei’s description of the world around him is hyperrealist; it feels like our world, but stranger.
Notably, Barrodale never tells us where her story takes place or where her narrator is from. Wei, as a Chinese surname, suggests a Chinese heritage. William, however, indicates a Western background. Is he in New York, Hong Kong, or some other metropolis? The ambiguity creates a larger sense of mystery and murkiness while indicating the loss of identity — both for individuals and entire cities — in an increasingly globalized culture.
“The Commission” features a similarly ambiguous setting and another detached first-person narrator. Fumi is a widow who has lived in the United States for 40 years and now works at Seibu, a Japanese department store. Fumi reveals what happens inside her employer’s walls, but not outside, creating a sense of claustrophobia and an unclear vision of the land beyond. Where Wei lacked feeling, Fumi’s extreme timidity and restraint prevents her from connecting with others. When she speaks to a customer, she reveals, “This is something that happens to me when I become nervous; my English begins to regress […] I still have some of the irredeemable habits of a non-native speaker, particularly when I am shaken.” Globalization has presented challenges for people of her generation, linguistic and cultural. She must contend with Western shoppers whose cultures and manners of interacting are at odds with her own.
Fumi’s stiffness emerges as she establishes a relationship with a new client, Gerald Thibideaux. “He had a Southern gentleman’s accent, and I could tell from the way he spoke that he was gay,” she relates. At various points in the story, Thibideaux asks Fumi to place a crown on his head, commissions a piece from her for which he never returns, and sends her a card with a photograph of a naked old man and a message about his struggle with AIDS. As in “William Wei,” Barrodale creates a sense of unreality. Contrasting a stiff, older Japanese widow and a gay man with a Cajun name and a southern accent, setting the story entirely in a department store in an unspecified locale, and juxtaposing discussions about John Gotti, AIDS, gurus, and ceramics lend the story an absurd feel.
On one level, the story conveys encounters between different cultures — not just the cultures of Thibideaux and Fumi, but also of her son and Seibu himself. Fumi reveals that she sometimes imagines that her deceased husband watches her everyday movements: “My son is a professional, Western-style therapist,” Fumi says, “and he said it is ordinary as long as I understand that my husband has passed away.” This small description reveals a much larger cultural divide between mother and son, who have embraced very different cultures and professions, leading to some of Fumi’s isolation. Her life revolves around her work in the store, and, like Wei, she never mentions friendships or confidantes. When she asks him about Thibideaux’s request for a special commission, he becomes angry and tells her that he sees “room for improvement” in her “self-confidence.” He utters this last word in English, as though the concept itself were Western. Seibu, as a businessman, has had to embrace a shifting culture and the changing face of his customers, while Fumi is unable to adapt. She gives no evidence of a life constructed outside of Seibu’s walls or an ability to form new connections once her husband dies, leaving her alone. She desires little beyond an ability to do her job adequately. Ultimately, Fumi is unable to create her own, adaptive identity.
“William Wei” and “The Commission” present characters with opposing relationships to contemporary technology and culture who ultimately suffer the same malady of isolation. Wei reveals that he watches pornography “pretty frequently” and admits, “it was even a problem. […] I would spend an hour looking for the most disgusting pictures I could find.” He doesn’t have to mention the internet for readers to know where he is looking. He does mention a “short video” he likes that involves a man, a woman, and a Blow Pop. While Barrodale never explicitly makes the link, it’s probable that the pornography “problem” is further distancing Wei from reality, inhibiting his ability to form meaningful relationships, and presenting him with unrealistic expectations for sexual encounters.
A woman, Koko, with whom he begins a relationship via the phone, has “a business selling old clothing on the Internet […] All the clothes had to be cleaned, pressed, tried on, photographed, and entered into her website.” Koko’s life revolves around the internet — it is both her place of work and her method of connection. Through her work, she develops many admirers. However, when it comes to in-person communication, she has a tougher time.
When these two products of the digital age finally arrange a meeting, they are so nervous about the in-person interaction that they both self-medicate. Wei keeps taking a “low-milligram antianxiety medication” he has been prescribed as well as a “mild” beta-blocker, and when he finally meets Koko, they take mushrooms and Percocet together. Of course, the drugs don’t bring them closer. Instead, Koko eventually leaves her apartment and Wei is alone again, on her bed, left to ride out his bad trip. Wei says, “it was a long time before she came back. The sorts of things I thought during that time, while I sat there, I can never really say.” The trip amplifies his struggle to express himself, even to his impartial listener. The reader never discovers what becomes of their relationship, but it is hard to imagine the characters escaping their isolation and coming together.
Part of what makes Barrodale’s work feel so fresh is its refusal to give easy answers. While pornography and the internet certainly contribute to Wei’s and Koko’s problems, their roots are more personal and complicated. The internet also acts as a connecting force — it brings Koko to the party where they first see each other. Barrodale creates characters with finely drawn, rich lives, entangled in technology. In “Night Report,” a text message leads to the protagonist’s downfall. A woman named Ema sends an absurdly long message to her married lover, who receives it in 21 parts of 144 characters each. The man initially responds, “Good times,” and then, several hours later, “While I’m out of the country, email is best. I’m sorry. Roaming rates are insane. x.” Humiliated, Ema checks herself into a month-long meditation program in the mountains of Vermont. Texting can be a dangerous form of communication, allowing one to unload with abandon. Never far from reach, cell phones can become an extension of bodies and, with texting, of immediate thoughts. Texting whittles the barrier between the public and the private, between what one reveals and what one should conceal.
Ema’s tale is disjointed, fragmented, and filled with typos. When Ema reads the first two lines, she finds them “weird and alone-looking.” Ultimately, though, there’s something poetic about the way the lines are separated. For better or for worse, technology has changed the way we relate information — from thoughtfully written, controlled letters to hastily conceived text messages. The format can lead to strange, surreal messages in which the subconscious is always present. Throughout her entire collection, Barrodale mirrors these qualities in her prose. Thus, the stories themselves adopt a striking, contemporary feel. The author has achieved quite a feat — converting what is usually considered a major problem in 21st-century culture into a means of telling effective new stories.
Ema encounters another technological backfire when she attempts to call the married man from her retreat. She explains her difficulties adapting to the culture there, and her interlocutor replies, “What are you doing? You hate New Age and you hate nature and you hate amateurs. But you’ve set yourself with all three for a month, and you wonder why you’re feeling bad.” Ema complains more, but then the cell phone cuts out, going dead and then playing a “three-note error tone.” The call is representative of her entire relationship with the man — she feels she can never adequately express herself to him. Whether a text message goes rogue or a call cuts out, technology has prohibited her from expressing herself the way she would like. It also becomes an easy scapegoat. Readers see that Ema’s problems are more than simple issues of miscommunication, and questions about the protagonist arise. What led her to seek out this married man and continue to pursue him? Why does she try to escape from him by joining a community she knows in advance won’t align with her own interests (if we are to believe the married man)? The story ends as Ema speaks to another woman at the retreat, threatening to kill herself and the other residents. Barrodale’s last line is in Ema’s voice: “Yes, I’d shoot Eve. Thank you. I’d shoot Eve two times. I’d shoot that whole shrine room full of holes.”
She will not likely do it, as it would not solve her problems, but these lines are a start to some sort of reconciliation. After Ema’s first threat to shoot the woman to whom she is speaking and their leader Bill, Barrodale writes, “When she said that, it was so outrageous, she couldn’t help feeling a little better.” Irrational though she may sound, Ema finally voices her aggressive impulses and discontent, getting in touch with her own emotions instead of looking toward the “New Age” culture, “nature,” and “amateurs” for answers. What is most freeing for her is just acknowledging her feelings and releasing her anger — a basic, age-old need. Like technology, newfangled healing rhetoric further alienates Barrodale’s characters from their emotions.
Barrodale’s stories reflect back at readers who are slaves to their cell phones, dismissive of those who can’t keep up with 21st-century culture, and who struggle to form connections in a world where distance between people seems to be ever expanding. Through myriad voices and a quirky contemporary style, Barrodale evokes an entire society both troubled by modern methods of communication and hesitant to do what will really help most: look inward and examine the strangeness.