Wait Till You See Me Dance by Deb Olin Unferth
Leah Sophia Dworkin
Deb Olin Unferth’s debut short story collection, Wait Till You See Me Dance (Graywolf, March 2017), is told through a full cast of developed voices, expressing a wide range of well-tuned perspectives. Meticulously crafted and interlaced with relentless humor, the collection—containing an impressive thirty-nine stories ranging from a single sentence to twenty-four pages—offers a high-powered union of irony and absurdity that rejects any comfortable, easy landing. When it’s least expected, these stories strike with gross and subtle tragedy.
Unferth writes from a place between hearty emotion and disengagement, her characters preserving in their own self-dissatisfaction. Her stories, which often appear as lists, monologues, or confessions, read almost like meditations on complacency: as soon as her characters confront their own feelings, they let go of them. This effect suspends readers in a state uncomfortable for the modern human: in a wait, as the bold first word of her title suggests. Her characters resonate because they, much like each of us, teeter between defining themselves by their actions and their non-actions. They are forced to compromise by settling in a frustratingly neutral, unexceptional yet inevitable homeostasis. In reading, in waiting, we, like many of her characters, find ourselves hanging on the edge of non-definition.
The first story in the collection, titled “Likeable,” begins, “She could see she was becoming a thoroughly unlikeable person.” The theme of unlikability, fraudulence, and failure appears throughout the book in unusual incarnations, most obviously in stories with titles like “Defects” and “Flaws.” Wait Till You See Me Dance is chock full of characters and narrators who’ve concluded they’re destined for a downgrade and that their existences are only defined by their failures—in ways I found refreshingly relatable. There are stories about failed teachers, one of whom falls in love and goes to grand extremes for her “worse than average-99 student” who, fantastically, “can’t even write a sentence.” Despite her characters often being bored by themselves, Unferth is unable to write a boring sentence. She denies her creations cliché resolution, is resilient to heroic evolutions, permits no godly miracles. We anticipate these ill-fated characters will succumb to their predicted dead-ends, but Unferth time after time demonstrates a remarkable gift for conjuring the unforeseeable, and the restricted scopes of her worlds miraculously give birth to expansive possibilities and ambient revelations through a voice ignited by its own humanity.
Unferth’s voice on the page establishes a polished verbal surface, a flattened plane that is direct and unapologetic, often creating tension between narrative and character, author and reader, word and world. Though the characters narrate in voices pointed and unabashedly confrontational, their words are often counterweighted by their actions–-despite the persistence of their claims, they avoidantly float through their own mutable worlds.
In “Pet,” an alcoholic mother in recovery takes in two pet turtles she presumes are being neglected in her sister’s basement. Her relationship with the ugly and emotionally expressionless non-mammals is seemingly the story’s focus, but the pets are strategically employed to do something much bigger: reveal the narrator’s failure as a mother. She finds herself surprised and overwhelmed by the turtles’ incommunicable demand for care, filling most of her headspace with an anxious search for everything from what nutrients they need, to how to re-configure their rock environment so one turtle will stop attacking the other. Eventually she goes to great lengths to get rid of them, carrying one to an AA meeting; later, mucking through mud in high-heels, she hopes to trade the turtles at an otherworldly, illegal reptile swap. This is all in stark relation to her relationship with her teenage son, who, when she feels she needs him most, pops up to say things like, “Look, Mom, you’re not my date. Okay? And we’re not friends. You’re the parent. I’m the kid who suffers in your presence until I can get away.”
In “The Vice President of Pretzels,” we’re given an account of a husband who encourages and accompanies his wife on a road trip to a pretzel factory, after her favorite childhood snack has been upsettingly altered, the reliable pretzels of her youth replaced by ones she insists are “thicker.” After her relentless emails and calls to the factory go unreturned (a bureaucratic failing and test of patience familiar to any modern day human who’s had to deal with customer service), she’s kept waiting on hold, until the husband sparks action by suggesting they make an in-person trip. He explains his decision by declaring, “My wife is not one to give up on a thing and I’d be hearing about it until I died.” The love in this book surfaces in a realistic way, bubbling up from anticlimactic stubbornness and deeply mundane human expectation and compromise, and characters relate to one another from a position between presumption and misunderstanding. The relationship between the reader and the text is not unlike the relationships formed between characters on the page; I felt myself wedged in the gap that divides words from the world, on a kind of hold myself, making my own distinctions between statement and actuality.
Although some of the stories in Wait Till You See Me Dance are more traditional, with plot points, side characters, a layering of scene and straight-forward chronology, there are meta stories that read in direct reference to the collection itself, pieces that experiment with minimalism and brevity—some of which enable us, in moments, to feel an intimate connection with the author. An example is the story “My Daughter Debbie,” a monologue written in a voice that might be a re-creation or evocation of the author’s real-life mother, intentionally muddying the line between memoir and fiction. She begins, “She doesn’t have any skills. While she was growing up, I always encouraged her to learn to do something.” The mother goes on to tell us everything her daughter once had the potential to do, listing the “solutions” she presented to her daughter, who only ever rejected them, who instead seemed set on “quitting everything,” determined to do nothing. In the same way the mother’s voice agitates the daughter and the reader, there is also friction within the text. The mother tells us that her daughter is now “calling herself a writer," revealing our author. We’ve already thumbed through twelve remarkable stories, so Olin Unferth has conjured this intentional friction, causing our allegiance to hop from one character to another, between the author and ourselves. Our reading of “My Daughter Debbie” is an engagement between what the mother reports and the evidence of the written book in our hands. The critical voice of the discouraging mother initially takes on the cartoonish familiarity of a hyper-critical vicariously-affirmed parent, but Unferth writes so clearly into the mother’s criticism that the real characters of both the author and her mother emerge in transparency.
My favorite story, one I happened to first stumble upon a few years ago in an issue of the Paris Review, is “Voltaire Night.”
A mediocre adjunct professor and her students start a ritualistic end-of-semester bar night influenced by Voltaire’s Candide, a deprecating storytelling contest where the participants compete by telling the worst story they can about themselves. By the end of the night, whoever’s story is the worst, wins. This premise, however, is not the story. We begin with a first person unnamed narrator, one who clings to the detrimental lackluster of her own narcissistic tunnel vision, one who makes statements like “I wanted to talk about the boyfriend who’d left me, and even in my traumatized state I had to admit it wasn’t the worst thing that had happened in my life. I’d had people die on me. I’d once had a fire burn up all my things. Besides, this boyfriend left me a lot. We were on the third or the fourth time now, depending on how you were counting. Those were the days that the same boyfriend left me over and over, and each time felt like a tragedy.” But partway through the story, Unferth makes room for a startling new voice, a story told by a Voltaire Night participant, one with drab plumage. As his story begins to unfold, eventually dominating the text, Unferth literally and figuratively gives birth to something dazzlingly vibrant.
There are worlds in our world that are incommunicable, which is why we rely on writers and artists who push themselves to find new modes—modes in which words are economically placed again and again until they articulate larger interconnected truths and ideas, thumb that dense tissue, and expose a previously unregistered tender point. Wait Till You See Me Dance is not a collection that can be enhanced by formulaic review and response; the formal nature of these stories actively resists intellectual reduction. So, I’m going to stop myself from man-hacking Wait Till You See Me Dance to parts. I think it’s better to let you accept its challenge. Feel free to angrily tweet at me if, after finishing, what you feel is nothing.
Leah Sophia Dworkin writes in New York City. She has published or is forthcoming in The Columbia Journal, b(OINK), Hotel, and Bomb. Online she goes by frumperella.