Jessica Hollander, In These Times the Home Is a Tired Place

Publisher: University of North Texas Press

2013, 152 pages, paperback, $15

A delightful, hyperrealistic take on today’s suburban landscape, Jessica Hollander’s debut In These Times the Home Is a Tired Place won the 2013 University of North Texas’ Katherine Anne Porter Prize for Short Fiction. The collection’s nineteen short stories—many of them short-shorts, coming in at less than five pages—present darkly comic situations arising out of progressive mores conflicting with our society’s underlying traditional expectations.

From the outset, Hollander’s characters struggle to live with one another. A father demands that he wants “everyone who enters [the home] mannered and buttoned-up,” and his youngest daughter rebels against the “Victorian sanctuary.” The mother “came to dinner in her puffed-hourglass dress,” but later, “her waist felt caught inside a paperclip.” The mother and oldest daughter take to the sidelines of the arguments and whisper to each other while the oldest daughter sneaks out to be with her “SAT-determined” boyfriend in order to have sex and review test vocabulary, words like “Gainsay. Amalgamate. To leave suddenly.”  

Her characters also search for the new bar of propriety for our time. In “What Became of What She Had Made,” the mother, Lynette, laments:

The house was comfortable enough, but she couldn’t tell if her daughter was a success, or if success could be measured in the way Lynette wanted. Take all the daughters in the world. How did her own compare? Lynette wouldn’t live forever and before she died she wanted to know, what could she have done? What was her fault?

No exotic locales, trendy restaurants, nor lush scenery decorate these stories. Instead, they are comprised of filthy kitchens, a young boy calling strawberry milk “blood milk,” cluttered apartments and homes, and one character who hacks away, surreally, at the furniture with knives.

In Hollander’s world, the physically weary, mentally fatigued, fed up and bored to death meet up with creatively inspired, crackling prose, that, at times, seems to skip ahead of the reader like an energetic child. One eccentric “spike-haired aunt: the speech corruptor, the hamperer of plans” wears “a papier-mâché parrot” that “wobbled against her chest.” Another woman, married to a cheating husband, describes her living room as being “a woman exploded: everything pink and red and cream.” In “I Now Pronounce You,” the generically-named “new wife” contemplates and describes her marriage, and her husband, with delightful efficiency and clarity: “A good decision to marry him—rushed, frantic even, but the wife was two years post-college and sick-of-it, and the husband was an American flag: starry-eyed and pin-striped, a regal flourisher to those beneath him.”

At times, Hollander steps away from conventional form to play with a story’s shape. In particular, she divides the title story into parts one, two and three. Each part divides further into a numbered list of nine paragraphs. The fragmentary style mimics the theme of a family’s dissolution, following the husband and wife’s divorce. The daughter caught in the middle of the dispute finds the stack of divorce papers:

2. The girl spent a Saturday morning cutting snowflakes from a pile of paper she’d found on her mother’s desk. The snowflakes were peppered with sliced negotiations, diamond-pierced words like child and property and alimony, and when the girl finished she strung the flakes together and hung them from her window so they trailed to the berry bush and flapped in the stirred summer wind.

The characters’ dialogue tends to come out in idiosyncratic ways and provide raw hilarity to traditional situations. When asked if it was her husband or her son who gave her a black eye, one character simply answers, “It’s like living in a washing machine.” The eccentric parrot-wearing aunt says to her niece, “I’ve been proximate to death my whole life,” and tells her, “I could reach out and hug it.” The family arguing in the first story speak mostly in strings of capitalized words, like chapter titles: “I tried—grabbing her arms asking What Baby Beatrice You Are A Child—but she fought me off leaving me looking at my parents and them looking at me like What Are We Going To Do This Girl Is Crazy.”

The characters almost always vocalize their conflicts with each other, but we often learn more from the absurdity of their actions. The poignant, last story of the collection, “Blooms Lined Up Like This,” features a woman struggling with her need to visit Harriet, her ex-mother-in-law, at a rented beach house. Harriet is very near dying, and tells her daughter-in-law, “I’m dead already, Butterfly! You missed it. I died this morning.” The woman knows how to arrange flower bouquets into messages, an old Victorian tradition, and gives Harriet a bouquet with the message: “I Love Hate Hate You. Leave Me I Miss You You’re Going To Die Goodbye.

In These Times the Home Is a Tired Place showcases Hollander’s incredible eye for finding overlooked moments and inflating them with her astute language. Her work contains a heartfelt intensity not to be missed.

—Dena Garcia