Book Review: Bummer and Other Stories

Bummer and Other Stories
by Janice Shapiro

The last time someone compared an author to Amy Hempel, I read James Franco and lost several days of  my life. Thus, after reading the blurbs for Janice Shapiro's collection Bummer and Other Stories, I proceeded with caution. Like Franco, this is Shapiro's debut collection. Also like Franco, Shapiro is no stranger to Hollywood; she's a screenwriter best known for her 1994 cult classic Dead Beat (I hadn't heard of it either).

But Franco she is not. Instead pseudominimalism with no direction, Shapiro floats between excess prose and minimalism as she portrays the lives of her directionless, mostly middle aged characters. Shapiro is like Amy Hempel yet she is like Deborah Eisenberg exploring the disappointment made famous by Antonya Nelson, but of course with better styling, and overall more fun to read.

For example, get this, from the title story:

"So maybe the best way to picture this next part of the story is to imagine you're looking into a kaleidoscope and in some of those fractured pieces of colorful glass there's me, right? Alison. Did I tell you my name, yet? Well, it's Alison. So there's good old Alison wandering all over the whole stinking place with that sickening feeling you get when you have no idea where you are and no hope of ever figuring it out. See? There's Alison wandering past aisles and aisles of gaudy slot machines, and there she is in the Gala Buffet Restaurant, and there zigzagging through a maze of lounge chairs in the pool area, all the while looking for Jose or Ramon or whatever his name was, but it being Alison, it would be a pretty safe bet that Alison wouldn't find what Alison was looking for, and the fact is, I didn't."

Shapiro's prose winds and curves inside your mind, not unlike Lydia Davis (to whom she is also compared), but unlike Daivs, Shapiro's voice is less academic, more common. Shapiro's characters are everyday women with quirks. From the woman who goes to Vegas to get married (in "Bummer"), to the woman who realizes that she is not as young as she used to be (in "Night and Day"). This is perhaps an echo of the key realizations in most of these stories: we are not who we used to be, or we are not--not ever--who we want to be. We are all mistakes, each of us. From the girl who can't escape her static existence ("1966")  to the housewife who returns to work in a coffee shop with a bunch of twenty-somethings ("Old Bean"), or the woman who can't help but always fall for the wrong man ("Ennui"). Life is humorous and sad in that way.

Despite this, however, reading the collection as a whole, one feels like we've seen these characters before, until in the middle of the collection you end up asking "How is the narrator in 'Bummer' different from that in 'Ennui' and how are these different than the character in 'Tiger Beat'? Disappointment is a motif that flows through the book, but one can't help but ask if these characters are different in any way. They have similar problems, similar voices: you can't help but guess (falsely) that these stories are of the same people at different parts of their lives. The only variety is in "Small," yet this story differs so greatly (it's an awkwardly crafted retelling of Snow White and Seven Dwarfs--or is it?), that is is also the only disappointment.

Given this flaw, this collection is still a pleasure to read. Each story is so finely tuned that, like Hempel's work, you can't help but quote them and admire Shapiro's craft. She gives us a view of messy lives in prose that is ironically clean and tight. The only question is will this writer make a short story career of her own without being compared to other writers?

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