The stories in “Certain American States,” Catherine Lacey’s debut collection, mostly take place in that “post-firework smoke” between breakup and moving on: stories of marriages dissolving, relationships ending, family members drifting apart.
“It’s embarrassing to remember how ordinary and lethal a heartbreak can be,” she writes in the story “The Four Immeasurable and Twenty New Immeasurables.” But the stories in this collection are anything but ordinary, as Lacey forces us to consider the absurd alongside the everyday, resulting in some remarkable juxtapositions. “The Four Immeasurable ...,” in fact, is about a woman who fails internet quizzes on discerning emotion, who hooks up with a monk, who questions the infinite and also just wants to get laid.
Life is complicated, Lacey seems to say through these stories — but it doesn’t always have to be. So while “Certain American States” has plenty of intricate, folded-in-on-themselves-like-origami narratives, each one is grounded in the familiar emotions and reverberations that come along with sudden breakups and losses. With these tethers firmly in place, readers are free to explore the absurdities of Lacey’s world with joyous abandon.
In “Ur Heck Box” a narrator reeling from the sudden death of her brother must juggle her grief with her mother moving into her New York City studio apartment; an appropriate behavior workshop at work; watching her friend Rebecca’s parrots for “a few months”; and a mute man named Maurice who follows her around the park, insisting she read nonsensical messages on his phone. But with all this chaos, the sightlines are clear, such as when the narrator muses how: “A life might comfortably disappear into a well-worn groove between house, school, and grocery store.”
Many of Lacey’s stories are similarly multilayered, such as in “Family Physics,” which explores a divorce, the petulance and ambition of youth, feeling at once part of and a mistake in your own family, and the peace that comes from poor accommodations in rural locations.
“And, sure, people always disappear into new people,” the narrator explains, “and no one can stop the way new versions of people overtake the old version of people, but something about the new Linda was so menacing that it made me suspicious of what she’d done with the old Linda.”