Wednesday, June 04, 2008

The Alice Stories (Jesse Lee Kercheval)

Calling The Alice Stories a collection of linked short stories doesn’t really give a good sense of it—it’s really more of a novel in a stories, following its main character over the course of decades, from graduate student in Wisconsin, to San Francisco and Germany, back to Wisconsin, through marriage and children. It really manages to get the best of both forms: the relatively self-contained, evocative episodes of the short stories, accumulating into something that doesn’t quite have the weight of a proper novel, but certainly ends up in the general vicinity.

The stories themselves are a thorough pleasure to read, generous and funny even in the darker stories. From the first story, “Alice in Dairyland”:*

I stuck my left foot in the tub. The hot water burned like hell. “Jo Beth has a gun,” I said.

“Gun?” He pronounced the n very carefully, as if he thought maybe what I had said was gum. Watch out, Jo Beth has gum.

Hehe. Or (because I’m a sucker for a good simile), describing the aftermath of the 1989 San Francisco earthquake in the apartment of Alice’s brother, Mark:

The furniture, which Mark had inherited from our mother, was all on castors—Mom, who’d worked long and hard at becoming a typical American housewife, had had an irrepressible German mania for vacuuming under things—and the earthquake had sent it all rolling like boxcars across the clean parquet floor through the arch and into Mark’s study. The couch and table huddled with his desk like scared livestock.

Funny, vivid, and true—my favorite, and an apt description for the entire book.

(Full disclosure: Jesse Lee was co-chair of the Creative Writing department at the University of Wisconsin–Madison when I was there, and I know for a fact that she’s awesome, a great writer, and a first-rate teacher. So there.) (Also, while I’m at it, I’m throwing in a plug for my thesis advisor Judy Mitchell’s excellent novel The Last Day of the War. Hi coach!)

*Which, as we just learned the other day, is an actual job title with the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection. Who knew?

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