Is 'You Are Having A Good Time' Beautiful Or Grotesque? Yes
In "Night Report" — one of the standout stories in Amie Barrodale's debut collection, You Are Having a Good Time — a character named Ema is so moved by a novel about a woman with a married lover that she sends her own married lover a long, emotional, confessional text describing its contents. His phone then proceeds to break up her text.
Into tiny chunks.
Over a long.
Time, piece by.
When Ema wakes up the next morning, mortified, she discovers he has responded thusly: "Good times."
This excruciating, heartbreaking scene — which takes pages to set up and execute — crystallizes the dynamics at the heart of Good Time. In these stories, characters are fighting each other: silent, subtle, implacable. Some of them, like the protagonist of "The Commission," weather these battles and win in ways you'd never expect. Others collapse against the weight of the effort, and run. (Ema, for example, immediately sublets her apartment and heads to a monthlong meditation retreat in Vermont. There, she will be confronted with far worse things than humiliating technological snafus and a lover showing her who he really is.)
These conflicts are, of course, nothing new — haven't people been having subtle social skirmishes in literature for centuries? — but here, the old struggle is freshened by these characters' voices, and how they justify the low-grade, unyielding stubbornness of their desire to do what they are doing, consequences and reality be damned.
In "Animals," a young actress takes on an ill-advised film project and attempts to maintain her dignity in the face of her cruel, hypnotizing director. In "Mynahs," an MFA director invites a former colleague, whom he once plagiarized from, to his school for an ill-advised visit. A recently divorced therapist has an ill-advised, unprofessional liaison with a barely overweight patient and the patient's eating-disordered mother in "Frank Advice for Fat Women." In "Catholic," a woman embarks on an ill-advised relationship with a drummer who will one day be very, very famous. (Are you sensing a theme here?)
... the old struggle is freshened by these characters' voices, and how they justify the low-grade, unyielding stubbornness of their desire to do what they are doing, consequences and reality be damned.
It is worth mentioning that while these stories aren't interwoven, precisely, they often echo each other in odd, deliberate ways. Not just the themes (affairs, Buddhism, therapy) but specific images that repeat and reference each other: waking up to strings of text messages or emails; calling or otherwise communicating with people across vast time-zone differences, things happening at 3 a.m., women pushing up on all fours. "Animals" and "The Imp" seem, in particular, to be in conversation with one another: The former is about a movie called The Imp, and while the latter doesn't seem to be the movie itself, it does echo several described scenes from "Animals," including one where a husband strikes his wife, and she asks to be struck a second time.
This uncanny repetition only adds to the collection's unsettling mood. There is a fascinating grotesqueness here, from the mean, broken, oblivious characters to the funny, ugly scenarios they're placed into. Even the structures of the stories are disconcerting: They always open so deep midscene — so breathlessly ready to go, so breathlessly already going — it's disorienting, like a film that starts with a character in midfall off a cliff.
But the grotesqueness is also cut with moments of beauty, moments when we zoom in to the gold-and-white luminosity of a hand-thrown clay bowl or a psychiatrist treating his patient's expensive boots with Vaseline or a wife's way of telling her husband he has a sharp nail ("There's a wolverine") and searching for it with her tongue. The result is somewhere at the intersection of discomfort and pleasure.
So is the world of You Are Having a Good Time beautiful with grotesque details, or grotesque with a little bit of beauty? The answer seems to be, "Yes."
Carmen Maria Machado's debut short story collection, Her Body and Other Parties, will be released in 2017. She has written for The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Granta and elsewhere.
Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.