Reviewed by Justin Courter
In Portraits of a Few of the People I've Made Cry, Christine Sneed's talent for creating compelling stories and vivid characters suggests V. S. Pritchett being channeled by Elizabeth McCracken, and one wonders how this extraordinarily accomplished collection of stories could be her first. But Sneed has not exactly sprung from nowhere -- her short stories and poems have been appearing in prominent journals since the mid-'90s.
"Quality of Life," which appeared in The Best American Short Stories 2008, is the opening story of the collection, and in its creepy depiction of the process by which a young woman becomes a rich, older man's concubine, leans toward fable. The last story in the collection, "Walled City," is decidedly a fable about a place in which the consensual restriction of citizens' behavior is taken to absurd extremes. All the stories in between are straightforwardly realistic, but these two sets of circumstances -- unconventional romantic relationships and prohibitive social conditions -- are the contexts in which all of them exist; the locations are often Chicago and smaller Midwestern cities.
Propelled by mixed motivations, Sneed's characters in Portraits reveal a complexity of thought, mood, and voice. In "By the Way," our narrator muses, "Something not everyone seems to realize is that the worst thing about getting older is that so many people will always be younger than you." This kind of thoughtfulness is balanced with the kind of humor we see in "Walled City," where, after conversation is outlawed, "few of the doctors having had the time to learn sign language... opted instead to begin writing legibly." This story, written with a detached, ironic formality, immediately follows "A Million Dollars," narrated by the honest and vulnerable Thea, a teenaged waitress who speaks plainly and detests "smooth-talking scuzzballs." But like all of this collection's protagonists, Thea is a deep well of empathy. Even in apparent danger of being taken advantage of by a cheesy photographer, she says, "No matter if he's a serial killer, I didn't want to hurt his feelings, I guess. I'm just not mean enough to do something like that."
The empathetic impulse that guides these stories extends to Sneed's treatment of her characters' tormenting jealousies. Small-town Birdy and Cornell Schweitzer, in "You're So Different," invite Margaret -- a screenwriter whom they have not seen since they were all in high school twenty years before -- to lunch, during which it is revealed that they are both jealous of her. Cornell turns vicious and blurts that Margaret's movies "are about sex." When she says that they're about more than that, Cornell, seething with angry sarcasm, says, "Never fear. As long as you're doing your thing, we're safe from complete despair." In spite of their mortifyingly rude treatment of her, for long after she returns home, Margaret continues to worry about the Schweitzers, their opinions of her and her films, and has to resist an urge to call and check up on them.
Through Sneed's careful attention to her characters in this rich and varied collection, the reader lives briefly but sympathetically alongside people who challenge and change each other. The reward is the great one most of us hope for when we pick up a work of fiction -- we feel moved. Toward the end of "You're So Different," Sneed adds the following final touches to her psychological portrait of Margaret, the screenwriter: "She has always yearned for romantic gestures, has always wanted to inspire them and knows she now sometimes does... She has worked for years for this, to be a stranger benignly affecting another, traveling across the invisible boundaries of time and circumstance." Ah, yes indeed, Ms. Sneed.
Books mentioned in this post