In “Historic Tree Nurseries,” two women travel to Ohio to adopt a dog. They spend the entire trip attempting and failing to communicate their concerns and desires with one another. The narrator jumps between their two minds, creating a world in which each person who views them sees them wrongly, misses their beauty and their love — a love that the women are certain exists but can not seem to grasp. Even in their best moments together, they stave off a misery just around the corner. After they make up from the argument that propels much of the story, one character falls quickly back into pessimism: “Because everyone else had it wrong. The problem with their relationship wasn’t moral at all. It was biological. It came down to the bodies they happened to have and the looming fact of death.” This untenable awareness, following the sincere attempt at connection even as it fumbles away, drives many of the stories in When Watched.
At first glance, Core’s characters are not tremendously different from one another: most are in the midst of a relationship, conversing with a sexual partner during their few brief moments on the page, and many self-define as writers or as artists. They possess nothing but first name identities, and Core rarely describes them physically. “Memory,” for example, comprises only a Proustian description of a woman, Alice, standing by the stove and making herself a cup of tea, remembering a defining moment from childhood. In “A Coffin,” an unnamed man has just learned that his sister Shirley has died. As his mourning unfolds, he thinks about Shirley, but Core shares nothing else about what his life might be like in any other moment, and she never even explains how Shirley died. Instead, she narrates the universal isolation of grief: “He feels restless and like an alien. He feels that he misses someone. He thinks it must be someone he used to date and wonders who. But he realizes that it is no single person. Because he has felt this brand of alien his whole life.”
As the title “A Coffin” suggests, these characters exist in small spaces — in bedrooms and bathrooms or in a bed or on a couch. In “Paradise,” the protagonist, Hank, loses his mother-in-law, a life event that awakens his wife, Lenora, to the fact that she no longer loves him. Hank awakes on the couch early in his story: “I’m a neglected dog, he thought and then realized that in this scenario he was also the abusive owner.” In another moment, Hank reorients himself, again from the vantage point of the lonely couch: “Night had come down through the windows and across the room in long furry slabs. It made him understand suicide — the darkness did. A desire to take the night and put it inside oneself — that made complete sense.”
Core is a minimalist in her use of detail, but her plots are well developed, even if they play second fiddle to the subjective experience of the events that unfold. She focuses less on causes and results and more on human beings in the midst of the everyday challenges they face as life “goes on.” “Paradise” features the tension between Hank and Lenora, both writers, one suffering from writer’s block and the other successful but not famous. The mother-in-law’s death factors into the story only as a vehicle to highlight the conviction the characters feel. The dissolution of Hank and Lenora’s marriage is far less powerful than Hank’s discoveries about himself as he wanders through that experience. He and Lenora still make dinner, they still make art, they still make love. By continuing these simple motions against or alongside the larger events of the story, Hank and Lenora reveal themselves most deeply: his desperation for a brief glimmer of grace in a continuous downward cycle, and her need to take pieces of other people’s stories in order to create her own.
In “The Hitch,” a dream takes a character back to the moment of her own conception, and in the final story, George Harrison speaks from the cover of an LP to a struggling author concerned with the conclusion of her book. But in all the other stories, characters live and breathe and complain and screw in a clear approximation of the quotidian, natural world. Still, in these, too, one gets an otherworldly sensation from Core’s writing. What lingers is the makeshift way these people exist in their personal spaces, how easily they manage to define the world around them as a function of themselves — the homeless transgendered man who declares that every human being possesses their own gender; the two lovers driving to pick up a dog convinced that every person they meet will see them as mother and daughter or be repulsed; the woman who takes care of her potentially suicidal twin sister.
With so many stories, When Watched repositions the reader constantly, so that the characters’ ever-shifting worlds, and the ways in which they make sense out of the chaos they create, become a means through which the reader creates logic as well. By making us do so, so many times and so quickly, Core reminds her readers that this is what we all do as we wander through our world: reorient the axis around ourselves, so that the world lines up with the way that we see it. The characters that we watch in these stories we come to know deeply, even if we would never be able to identify them on the street. All of these people are trying to find and make connections — the success or failure of any particular attempt is not the point. As one of Core’s characters mentions, “I can’t see what’s inside anyone.” Maybe she can’t, but in this collection, Core makes sure we can.