"I'm not saying it's proper or right to love a student, and I'm not going to pretend I never did anything about it, because I did, but I can say I didn't do much," says the narrator of Deb Olin Unferth's title story, "Wait Till You See Me Dance."
"All I did was to bring the office assistant to the dance and threaten to kill her."
Unferth knows how to change direction. Her absurd and tender story collection is full of sentences like clear glass doors, and you, reader, are the bird.
Of the student she is in love with, the narrator writes: "The thing about the kid's music was that you didn't know what was going to happen next. You'd think you knew where it was going but you were wrong. There are very few parts of life like that."
Unferth's characters are often people whose potential is unfulfilled — an adjunct professor, an ineffective insurgent, disillusioned spouses, a bad father trying to mentor a prison inmate. The way she writes these people is reminiscent of the unsentimental, often absurd, compassion of George Saunders, for whom there are no heroes and villains, just various kinds of achingly familiar weirdos trying to inhabit the same planet without more humiliation than is necessary.
Her humor often takes the form of reducing things to their essences. In one story, an academic says, "I was what is called an adjunct: a thing attached to another thing in a dependent or subordinate position." Another story is just deadpan summaries of opera plots: "Susannah is kicked out of the church and her fiancé is unfaithful. Men from the military step out, do a ballet dance. There is foreboding. There is noise in the distance. Women shriek and the enemy dies."
Writing moods in sequence is easy enough: love, hope, disappointment, despair, hope again. Behold, a story! But what about the thing a person is more likely to feel, which is love mixed with shame mixed with fear mixed with hope, plus nausea and an unaccountable spasming of the sphincter? That mood is harder to create, but Unferth does it in her story "Voltaire Night." It takes a certain kind of writer not to just capture a mood but capture all the conflicting and confusing and shifting layers of it.
In "37 Seconds," a couple fights. She documents all the things that could take 37 seconds — blame, denial, "a mango falls in a nearby field," brooding, the "emergence of a cramp behind his left eye," an "apology (forlorn cows standing around, military police a few meters off): she didn't mean it, she loves him, he is wanted." And so on. This multiplicity of feeling is wonderful; it's like she's swirling all these different colors of paint together but stops while it's all still just thinly marbled together, right in the moment before it turns undifferentiated mud-brown.
Her readers, too, are kept on ten different uneasy levels. In one story, a gunman decides whether or not to shoot a little girl climbing a sand dune:
"If she lives, if the shooter doesn't pull the trigger, later the surprise of herself will dull. She'll grow familiar (or frightening) to herself, then bored (or desperate). Then will come that inconvenient teenage self-hatred, like an avalanche, the worst of it hurled at the poor mother, another entry in the ledger of bad luck. But the girl would soften later, she would unstiffen over the years, over the decades, by degrees, until one day thirty years after this day on the dune, she would achieve the middle-age calm that is happiness. The simplicity of the formula somehow takes that many years to reach. She would take a trip to Hawaii and bring her aging mother, leaving her own children and sister behind, and she and her mother would have the time of their lives (well, not exactly, but it would have its moments)."
We start out with hope and fear (don't shoot the little girl!) and then those feelings blossom and scatter into a mire of more complex and indistinct feelings and thoughts (oh god am I old? is my happiness just the calm of giving up? Should he just shoot the kid? Could there be redemption after all? I should call my mom). The temptation to write neat and linear cause-and-effect is overwhelming. But Unferth resists, because the truth is that we contain queasy, flickering, tender multitudes.