Somewhere a Long and Happy Life Probably Awaits You
Jill Sexsmith, 160 pages, ARP Publishing, arpbooks.org
Too many of the characters in Jill Sexsmith’s first story collection reduce the complexity of neurosis to little more than silliness, forcing the reader to contend with what an earlier era might have labeled oddballs. At first I was unable to invest in and relate to what I felt were mere stick figures, yet I came to accept them as a valid outlines matching Sexsmith’s surreal plotting and settings. Weakness or eccentricity is forefront, such that that your eventual sympathy isn’t diverted from what makes each character vulnerable.
Sensory descriptions are economical, sharp, and bright when needed: “Deep tunnels branch off in every direction. The walls are opalescent creams, bleeding into reds and green. She runs her hand over it, rough like an oyster shell.” At its too-rare best, characterization is combined with story and setting, managing to climb to beauty: “In the morning, she was writing on their dorm room window, slowly blocking out the light. Tulip was disappointed the formulas now covered all four walls, which meant, at some point in the night, Bea had been standing over her while she slept.”
Many of the stories venture past comic relief into screwball humour, but some are exceptionally touching. As for the former, ‘A Box Full of Wildebeest’, is repetitive and frivolous; I sought a deeper meaning, but saw nothing beyond the chuckle of a hypochondriacal mother imposing upon her perennially vacationing daughter. ‘Airplanes Couldn’t be Happier in Turbulence’ embodies what I liked least and most about Jill Sexsmith’s writing. In it, Frank, an actuary who looks at life using a boring predictive mathematics, is inexplicably a bigot. For most of the story, I also found the protagonist, Madison, to be a stick figure. Then, somehow, the ending arrives in perfect odd harmony with Madison, who finally blooms when making a self-realizing decision. The next story, ‘You Cry Ugly’, combines a great concept and a well-drawn grandmother-granddaughter combination heading toward an emotional ending involving the daughter/mother connecting them.
Thanks to my (perhaps narrow) tastes, Sexsmith faced an uphill battle with me… I concede. (Feliks Jezioranski)