SEPTEMBER 13, 2016
Years ago, I was referred to Christine Sneed’s first collection of short stories, Portraits of a Few of the People I’ve Made Cry, winner of the Grace Paley Prize for Short Fiction and a finalist for the 2010 Los Angeles Times first-fiction book prize. My professor at the time wanted to show me a writer who wrote about sex and love because I was engaging these subjects in my own work. (Also, she encouraged her students to add sex scenes in every story they wrote, although I won’t get into that now.) What I discovered was a writer who mined the inner complexity of people, so that when they did indeed fall in love or strip their clothes off, it was the mark of their character rather than a deus ex machina or a bad Mary Gaitskill impression. It revealed their skin in a way that was awkward, necessary, and always sincere.
In her second story collection, The Virginity of Famous Men, I see her investigation of that complexity has not swayed. Sneed’s strength is her characters; we often find them in the middle of a choice. It feels refreshing. These are not the aimless, wondering, interior characters we dread in short fiction. The active nature of every one of Sneed’s people is that they want something, and we know what that something is. They desire to get away, dissolve into someone else, be saved, and ultimately not be on their own. We empathize with their desires, and root for — and sometimes fear for — the decisions they make. They embody the Bradbury metaphor wholly; her plots are certainly the tracks that her characters make in the snow. We follow them as they ask: How are we made invisible? How do we try to make ourselves whole? But mostly, how can we not be alone?
The stories in this collection demonstrate a variety of voices. Sneed places us in the hands of a woman who fields calls at a customer service center for bath products and a teen who takes care of a blind man and his broken heart, and she immerses us in the life of celebrity.
In “The First Wife,” we meet a woman recounting her relationship with her ex-husband, a famous actor, Anthony Grégoire: “the name he was born with, not a stage name chosen for him by an agent.” She opens the story with this striking declaration:
The famous do resemble the unfamous, but they are not the same species, not quite. The famous have mutated, amassed characteristics — refinements or corporeal variations — that allow their projected images, if not their bodies themselves, to dominate the rest of us.
Sneed examines celebrity several times in the collection. This is not a new obsession for her. It makes an appearance in all of her work. It is also the focus of her first novel, Little Known Facts. Sneed’s fascination is unique in that she uses the vantage point of the person adjacent to fame — the lover, the offspring of the famous — to illuminate not just the movie stars themselves, but what it means to be seduced, to stand a foot away from the limelight. The effect creates a delicious brew of insecurity, comparison, and exposure.
She recalls that simultaneous nibble of power and vulnerability in this memory:
The actual physical rewards of sex, because they are so often inconsistent, probably are overrated, but its emotional heft, its implicit statement that another person desires you, possibly more than anyone else, if only in that moment, is, in a way, unrivaled. I loved sleeping with Anthony because in those moments, no one else was as close to him as I was.
Sneed has a keen sense for the power dynamics in relationships — the more off balance, the sweeter the complication. And for this narrator, it is one of her crusades to find equality as one of the “unfamous.”
In “The First Wife,” we hear what it is like to be on the inside. “He married me in part because I wasn’t famous, not as famous as he was, in any case. He was the beauty in our household and I was not the beast but the brains.” We are lured in by our base curiosity to peer into the houses of prominence, to see if they are really “just like us,” to know the true filth about them, to be the person at the party with a drink in our hand saying, I met him once, or better yet — did you know that he…? Even with a fictional celebrity, we are hooked. Sneed offers us this glimpse and more. We follow their relationship: she’s an unknown screenwriter and he produces and stars in her first film, which she wrote for him, of course.
As she catalogs their private moments, we perceive places where it starts to go wrong. “I wanted love, physical proof that he needed me, only me — an outrageous and absurd desire.” I am not giving anything away to say that Anthony leaves her for his co-star. This is a familiar plot in Hollywood, but the narrator calls that out and recognizes the cliché.
One of my favorite passages in this voice-driven story is when she recalls a relationship before her famous ex-husband. A relationship with a struggling actor,
We made each other feel less lonely, and in a big city, especially one like Los Angeles, this wasn’t so easy to do. Ordinary people feel lonely in a way that the famous do not, and despite how it might seem to those who do not live in southern California, there are so many more ordinary people than movie stars sitting in traffic jams or buying their coffee beans and wheat bread at Vons.
Another line that rings this bell, “This is what celebrity signifies more than anything else — it is the strict refutation of the banal.”
Los Angeles is rarely remarked upon for its “ordinary” qualities. But for those that live here, we know the traffic lights and the strip malls; we know that the mundane rules over the rare star sighting. This stark comparison — a town founded in the celebration of the extraordinary alongside the struggling actor and his screenwriter girlfriend picking up groceries — is exactly right. The “lonely” finding each other to shield themselves against seclusion is an undercurrent in The Virginity of Famous Men. Sneed might be from the Midwest, but she punctures through the typical L.A. first layer to reveal a much closer and authentic depiction outsiders rarely comprehend.
An unusual job is at the core of another story, “Words that Once Shocked Us.” Marcie works in the call center at Clean n’ Soft and gets tangled up in an employee’s infidelity with a caller:
Within our first week of working the WATS line for our soap‑and–shampoo company employer, Rachel and I identified four main kinds of callers: the know-it-alls, the neurotics (mostly parents of small children), the kooks, and the lonely hearts. It is this last category that is sometimes hardest to respond to both affably and professionally, in part because they keep us on the phone for as much time as we will give them.
This story confronts loneliness in several iterations: Marcie is divorced and living with an aging aunt, and she wears it like an invisible shroud.
In the opening pages, she says this about a recent milestone birthday,
It seems a strange thing to be — so far removed from childhood and adolescence, some of which is still so vivid in memory, and also past the safest era for bearing children. Forty is more than likely than not the midpoint of my life, if I am lucky enough, that is, to live for another four decades.
She highlights the distance she feels between her and everyone else.
We also learn the rules of engagement at the call center:
As the best way to abbreviate a call when we’re faced with a lonely heart’s small talk, our training manual prescribes a number of responses. There is one other last-ditch tactic in the manual, this one is for the chronic repeat-offender lonely heart: Sir/Madam, I’m sorry, but I now need to speak with another valued customer … But please feel free to call us again if you have a specific question about one of our products.
This reminded me of the opening of Nathanael West’s novel Miss Lonelyhearts not just in name, but the concept of the broken leading the broken. At the call center, they are there to dispose of these needy people, people who are so desperate for companionship that they call the number on the back of their shampoo bottle. We learn that one of these “lonely hearts” has become a fan of her friend and fellow employee, Rachel. Rachel is married but finds enticing the attention and the daily calls from lonely heart caller, Jack. Marcie, who has a crush on Rachel’s husband, listens to their exchanges and plans to meet up and thinks, “The lonely hearts are the ones we pity, not fall for.” We see Marcie pity her own aunt in the glow of their shared TV, eating sardines and baby carrots (foods that come in singles ideal for the solitary diner); we watch her pity Rachel as she contemplates an affair even though she has a perfectly good husband, Ben, at home.
Marcie ends up eating hash browns at Rachel and Ben’s dinner table. (The meal feels effectively depressing in this story. Hash browns for dinner?) She looks at them across the table and observes, “I don’t know if either of them has any idea of the disappointments coming their way — ones they suffer as a couple, as aspiring artists, and maybe as parents, if they make it that far.” We only stand for her dour pronouncements because Sneed makes Marcie so human with “her thighs chafing against her jeans,” and her fantasies of hope, such as “I will run (a marathon) and run and it will clear my mind of all the self-doubt and angry grudges.” Her brush on the dresser has “fine graying hairs.” Entrenched with singularity, she confesses at the end, “There are people I have loved without them knowing it … What do you do so with so much heartfelt but unessential affection?” This story narrows and aches with the kind of power of Katherine Anne Porter’s wonderful short tale “Theft,” in which things are “twice lost,” first in the living of them, and then in remembrance of them. Sneed captures the interim between a life alone and the one not quite vanished.
In “Five Rooms,” two unlikely characters are linked together by different needs. The narrator, a teenager, Josephine, is caretaker for a blind man, Mr. Rasmussen. “Wednesday, we go grocery shopping. Thursdays, I do his laundry so that I’ll learn to be a good person.” The blind man needs her to drive him to his ex-girlfriend’s house, a town across a state line, to try and salvage their relationship. The tension of this story comes from his success or failure hanging in the balance.
Josephine’s voice has the direct, no-nonsense diction that we know of youth, an interesting filter for Mr. Rasmussen’s disability: “During this whole time he hasn’t been able to see, he’s been doing things that are a little strange for a guy, like learning how to knit and taking piano lessons and carving sheep and dogs and cows out of bars of soap …” She admits that she’s learning to empathize, but soon we understand that it’s an experiment, much like when an adolescent strolls up on a dead squirrel and pokes it with a stick. “When I try to keep my eyes shut for two minutes to see what it’s like for him, I can’t do it. After thirty seconds I’m already cheating …”
“ … [H]e knows that a blind guy is not exactly the hardest guy to rob, and plenty of people know about him, how he lives on his own because his parents are both dead and his son is dead too.” Nothing horrible has happened to her yet, so these things are just a list to her; Sneed has successfully embodied the affecting range of this teen.
Mr. Rasmussen is heartbroken, and, despite the obvious obstacles ahead, he wants his ex back. Here is another one of Sneed’s characters being discarded, but still willing to grapple his way out of it. It is in these lines where Josephine understands why Mr. Rasmussen’s girlfriend may have broken up with him:
[Y]ou’d always be worrying that he’s fallen down the stairs and is dying at the bottom in a pool of his own blood. You’d worry about him pulling out the twenties instead of the singles and getting shafted by greedy people. You’d always wish that he could see your new hairstyle or dress once in a while, but there’s no way.
Josephine is still mystified by the notion of empathy at the story’s end, confused by her own small kindnesses, but indeed looking in a different direction. The expected expression of compassion from Josephine isn’t imposed as a conventional epiphany, and we are relieved. Sneed has been described as a psychological writer, and that feels paramount to state here. This investigation of emotional terrain inspires her characters’ creation.
How these people love is not always written. We arrive in these stories at the moment of loss, the aftermath, where there is cause for repair, where things are sliced open and at the curb. This is where their agency begins.
The collection is uneven at times; stories like “Older Sister,” “Beach Vacation,” “Whatshisname,” and “The Functionary” needed to start closer to the action. There is a ghost story and one that is in the complete form of a CV. The more traditional structures and narratives are compelling and serve her better. This is when she illuminates the ostensibly minor moment in a person’s life, when she spots the small way into the larger subject, as Amy Hempel has said.
The landings at the ends of a few of Sneed’s stories don’t hit the mark. In some cases, one feels like a hitchhiker dropped off too soon. The reader is left to make sense of what came before, while bewildered and questioning what should resonate. Still, those are the minority in Sneed’s collection. Echoes of Chris Kraus, Lorrie Moore, and Katherine Anne Porter are present in this collection, but I would say these comparisons are not quite right. This writer inhabits people. Her voice is transparent. It doesn’t feel imitative or derivative.
While reading The Virginity of Famous Men, I recalled this Norman Cousins quote: “The eternal quest of the individual human being is to shatter his loneliness.” Christine Sneed is a writer who understands loneliness; she knows the form it can take in complete obscurity, in utter fame, and the multiplicity in-between. The drive of the characters in these 13 stories is wrapped in Cousins’s described quest as they try to punch through their isolation, and the result is the struggle that transforms them.
Libby Flores is a 2008 PEN Center USA Emerging Voices Fellow. Her short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Post Road Magazine, Tin House/The Open Bar, the Guardian, The Rattling Wall, CODA Quarterly, FLASH: The International Short-Short Story Magazine, Bridge Eight, and Paper Darts. She holds an MFA from Bennington College.