Invite, Glen Pourciau. University of Iowa Press. 120pp, 16.00.
“You confuse two things: solving a problem and stating a problem correctly. It is only the second that is obligatory for artists.”
—Anton Chekhov 1
Anton Chekhov thought the writer should articulate the human predicament, not judge or diffuse it with proposed solutions. Despair and disappointment are rich and varied experiences, and there is an aesthetic value in the sheer array of ways in which life can fall short of the ideal. Chekhov’s stories are contained, tight, meticulously objective—one need only read Chekhov to see how much judgment other writers unwittingly pack into even the most straightforward of descriptions. His stories are not about how to avoid disappointment; they are about the difficulty of recognizing its true scope. In Chekhov’s view, chronicling human difficulty in all its nuance is an artistic end in itself, one that can be best accomplished through authorial restraint.
Glen Pourciau’s Invite is at its strongest when following Chekhov’s dictum about “stating a problem correctly.” Many of Invite’s stories are set in typically upper middle class habitats (cul-de-sacs, cocktail parties, restaurants), and Pourciau’s characters often find themselves brooding over what at first seem like small matters of social conduct. Inappropriate comments are made, apologies are awkwardly sputtered, acquaintances flee from each other in wine-and-cheese-anesthetized shame. At first glance, these stories appear like wicked sendups of the neurotic entitlement born of class, but the problems Pourciau explores are both more individual and more universal. In the first and perhaps best story in the collection, “Snub,” a husband and wife avoid another couple, the Crossmans. The story begins with the narrator justifying the snub to come:
As we listened to them over the course of several years we began to notice a lack of awareness of us. We wondered if they’d be saying the exact same things if someone else were sitting in front of them. With these thoughts in mind, I suggested we skip the Crossmans. Don’t call them, don’t let them know we’re around.
The narrator and his wife engage in a tortured dance to avoid the Crossmans. They scuttle around with their faces averted at a restaurant, they choreograph their route as to avoid intersecting them in town; the wife ends up in a group with Mrs. Crossman, but ignores her out of fear that it would be too awkward after their earlier snubs. Eventually, of course, the Crossmans catch up with them. The narrator reacts as if their friendly contact is a kind of aggressive, tactical move:
Crossman was now going to call and put us in the awkward position of covering up the snub, though we could guess he already knew about that. He wanted us to squirm for what we’ve done. My wife said that maybe he just wanted to see how we were doing. I admitted it was possible, but it was just that possibility that would allow him to play the role he could be playing.
The success of “Snub” comes from how urgent and authentic the narrator’s angst feels, even though the problem he faces is banal and even absurd. The Crossmans, though they behave reasonably throughout the story, become a kind of terrifying possibility as they hang over the narrator’s thoughts. Pourciau maintains the writerly version of a poker face; his spare, unadorned style gives no indication that the narrator’s overblown reactions are, in fact, overblown. The reader gets no reprieve from the looming Crossmans, no authorial wink to show how irrational this all is, nothing to indicate that this is a joke we could be let in on.
Pourciau’s skill at modulating the authorial perspective is an interesting counterpoint to his characters’ inability to maintain any perspective. Social situations gone bad are at the heart of many of the stories in Invite, and Pourciau’s characters obsessively “sweat the small stuff.” Common sense seems to dictate that some moments in life are more meaningful than others, some mistakes more grave, but for Pourciau’s characters there is no way to cleanly parse out what matters in life and what does not. If existence is a plane with important things in the foreground and petty ones in back, then Pourciau’s stories show how flattened our view can become.
Unable to sort out the important from the trite, Pourciau’s characters find their world deeply destabilized. Either every moment of life is meaningful, or every moment is meaningless—neither interpretation offers these suburban dwellers much solace. In “The Neighbors,” a narrator is approached by his neighbor (who he hardly knows) and invited into his home. The neighbor then proceeds to tell a long story about his marital troubles, which stem from his reluctance to have children. The neighbor’s monologue is long and minutely detailed, with scenes of specific arguments with his wife, and the narrator eventually recognizes his own story in what he’s being told.
At first, the narrator suspects that the neighbor has spoken to his wife to get the story, but he finds no evidence of this. Either he has a great deal in common with the neighbor, or his neighbor has somehow glommed onto his life. Neither option seems possible. A few lines in, the neighbor’s monologue sum up the fundamental uncertainty:
He asks himself what he would say if he told his own story. He can imagine telling what happened but not how it happened. . . . He writes as much of his story on legal pads, but reading through these pages he sees no common thread that can be used to make sense of him.
In the end, “The Neighbors” is about the banality of interchangeable lives—the sad truth that the narrator is left with is that his life story is hardly discernible from his neighbor’s. As with much of Invite, the narrator in “The Neighbors” is doomed by his own shortsightedness: there can be no overarching meaning when every interaction is given equal attention. With each moment so individually significant, nothing coheres. Life, for Pourciau’s characters, becomes nothing more than a series of discrete events.
Invite stages the difficultly of trying to settle on an interpretation when everything feels significant, and Pourciau’s restraint makes this seem like his narrators’ own struggle, rather than a literary tool to create ambiguity. Notably, the few misses in the collection fail because Pourciau shows his hand too much. “Gone,” a draining chronicle of an old man’s undignified death, is a tedious read because the first person voice feels weighted down by authorial intent. But overall, Invite is a remarkable collection that artfully articulates the idea that a profusion of meaning can often be the same thing as a lack of it.
Monica McFawn is a writer living in Michigan. She has published fiction and poetry in Conduit, ,em>Conjunctions, Poetry Salzburg Review, and others. She created and moderates the literature and art website, Litandart. McFawn’s collaborative chapbook (with painter Curtis Rhodes) of drawings and prose, A Catalogue of Rare Movements, will be coming out as issue 42 of Xerolage.
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