Funny Once: Stories by Antonya Nelson, review by Bruce Jacobs
In the title story in Antonya Nelson's new collection of dark but dead-on stories of frayed marriages and entangled families, the younger partner of a Houston lesbian couple (both named Louise) amuses a dinner party with a clever line she drunkenly repeats three times. Newly abstemious Phoebe, unhappy spouse of Ben and old friend of the senior Louise, "makes a mental note, in case she went back to drinking: it's only funny once."
Ben and Phoebe are typical of the couples in Nelson's stories. She finds something to hate in everything around her, "raised by critics, pessimists; she was genetically disposed... highly credentialed in disillusion." He is a "professional idealist," who like his old friend Ouisie, is "aggressively amenable," trying to hold things together. Ben and Phoebe bicker, they laugh, they share sarcastic observations; but in the end Phoebe doesn't really like Ben. She hates his flashy car ("he was neither young enough nor old enough to be driving it") and hates "how he set the brake, some piece of smug punctuation." He fails to see that "life was so little like a science experiment and so much like a cluttered drawer where you tossed things just to get them out of sight."
Winner of the 2003 Rea Award for the Short Story and author of seven story collections and four novels, including Female Trouble and Bound, Nelson has perfected the fiction of character and place. These 10 new stories are set in her home turf of New Mexico, Texas, Kansas and Colorado--far from the celebrity glare of the coasts. Their characters wrestle with infidelity, inebriation and infirmity. They live in neighborhoods "populated by university professors and medical personnel, equitable two-income two-children homes, nannies and gardeners and housekeepers, the insulated hub of bleeding heart liberalism." Their parents are suffering dementia and destined for a nursing home--in one story hauled off by their children listening to Tina Turner while "dad was riding in the grody bed of a truck, duct-taped into an easy chair." Their own children grow up distant or isolated, as if "suddenly transformed from the young girl they'd known into the adult they couldn't fathom." With an eye for the humorous contradictions and misplaced passions of people wanting badly but failing to connect, Nelson's stories remind us that in the end there is nothing funny about the emotional distress of relationships--at least not more than once.
Bruce Jacobs' review originally appeared in Shelf Awarness for April 28, 2014