Glen Pourciau, Invite

Publisher: University of Iowa Press
2008, 106 pages, paperback, $16.00

anton chekhov once said that an artist need not provide solutions to social problems. Chekhov maintained, rather, that an artist need only portray reality. In Chekhov’s prose, however, there is a yawning space between the reader’s mind and the minds of the characters; it is inside this space that Chekhov illustrates problems without needing to solve them, managing to convey pity, scorn, amusement, and horror. Glen Pourciau, in his debut collection of short stories, gives his readers no such gaps in which to contemplate the stories’ events and characters. Pourciau’s work is thematically comparable to Chekhov’s, but Pourciau addresses isolation, hopelessness, and the banalities of life from adeptly-developed first person points of view, utterly inhabiting his characters’ minds. It is difficult for any person to judge a situation accurately from his or her own perspective; and because in these stories the reader is forced to inhabit the perspectives of characters who are neurotic, pessimistic, and self-indulgent, the danger becomes that–rather than observing the societal problems Pourciau illustrates–the reader will instead sympathize with these insufferable blockheads.

The characters of Invite are wildly unhappy, but their problems are largely manufactured: “Snub” presents us with a man who becomes increasingly certain he is being ignored by an old friend (though there are no real friends in the world of Invite, only enemies-in-waiting) after first ignoring him and his wife at a restaurant; in “Invite,” a man at a party becomes crippled with rage when he spots somebody who insulted him in grade school; the collection’s longest and most ambitious story, “Deep Wilderness,” portrays a husband whose ambition and pride destroy his marriage and family over the course of several decades. Pourciau operates solidly in the realm of minimalist domestic realism, and he creates characters who feel original even in their stock normalcy. The more normal Pourciau’s characters are, it seems, the more likely they are to consider themselves tortured, misunderstood, and alone in the world, having apparently succumbed to imposed Western notions of individuality and the concomitant mysteries of identity. But really, these are not exceptional people, and they should not, logically, have any problems: it is as though they have been taught that, in order to be interesting or worthwhile, they must have problems. Then–once they are plagued by friendlessness and isolation–they are free to behave gracelessly and self-indulgently, ostensibly acting within an ethos that envisions the mysterious human identity as being deep, abstruse, and impregnable.

These issues of individuality and isolation are largely conflated with issues of gender. Pourciau’s male characters desire to be self-sufficient, confident, complex of character, and heroic, unmarred by others’ humiliation or reproach. The husband in “Deep Wilderness” is the one who is initially tortured by self-doubt and self-sabotage, though he eventually drags his wife and children into his downward spiral. He is an author, and his son also becomes an author; they spar for authorial supremacy, as it were. The daughter of the story is much more retreating and, it seems, happy. The father in “How Tommy Lee Turned Out Abnormal” becomes crazed when his son enters adolescence, clearly fearing that his progeny will usurp him. In the story, which strives for black humor but falls just shy of accomplishing it, the father tries to kill his son over the terrified protestations of his very reasonable and happy wife. The mere presence of another man, for most of Pourciau’s male characters, is sufficient to prompt a crisis of identity and resultant absurdity. And while wives trust their husbands in this collection, the reverse is untrue: husbands cannot submit themselves to love, and instead consistently undermine their own relationships just as they sabotage the rest of their lives.

It is unclear whether Pourciau is attempting to illustrate the aspects of society that cause these issues of self-importance, cynicism, and inflated identity (certainly, the gender-specificity of the characters’ neuroses would make it seem so), or whether he is actually, disappointingly, attempting to portray his observations of real human existence, in which everybody is inexplicably and causelessly alone and tortured. “The Dangerous Couple” lends support for the reading of this collection as a damning analysis of our society as the type of society that defines happiness and honesty as dangerous. The husband and wife, acquaintances of the narrator, have an open relationship, seem quite contented, and mock the narrator when he attempts to instigate trouble. Examine your life, they hint, and think about why you cannot just be happy with it. In most of his other stories, however, Pourciau seems to inhabit his characters too well to be judging them, and the stories’ pacing–in addition to their points of view–prevent the reader from being able to step outside the narrator’s version of events.

In all likelihood, Pourciau is endeavoring both projects at once, aiming to criticize society while simultaneously appealing to his reader’s sense of loneliness and futility. It is likely that readers will be widely split in their opinions of this collection. Pourciau uses the first person masterfully, and his language is deft, interesting, and nuanced; with this collection he undertakes an interesting, if slightly inscrutable, project. But the stories’ perpetual grimness, along with the characters’ stubborn insistence on misery, may become repetitive and wearisome, as may some gimmicky-feeling structural devices. (“Among the Missing,” the story of a man who never stops talking, is a single paragraph, eleven pages long.) I recommend that this collection be read in small increments–unless “you deem” yourself so very complex, tortured, and isolated that you expect never to find true companionship, and you are plagued by social misunderstandings, and you fear human connection, trust, and love will evade you forever. In that case, enjoy.

-Sarah Morrison