Book Review

At the end of “Tics,” one of the short stories in Wendy Rawlings’s excellent new collection, Time for Bed, the protagonist—who has become romantically involved with her seventeen year-old stepbrother—finds herself at a family gathering unable to engage in casual conversation as if all is normal. She breaks down in the middle of a restaurant and has to leave. Outside, she stands in front of a costume and wig shop, trying to collect herself, while her stepbrother half-jokingly suggests they try on some of the wears. “We can be anyone,” he says. The protagonist doesn’t seem so sure.

It’s compelling to think of identity as a choice, but if a choice changes everything then what’s the significance of anything? If we just put on and take off roles like costumes, when are we ever ourselves? And, of course, who has the privilege to make such choices? Still, if important things can change forever—things as fundamental as who we love—then can anything be said to be inherent to who we are? In the end, is such uncertainty liberating or terrifying?

These are not easy questions, and Time for Bed does not offer simple answers. But this collection of thirteen stories does not turn away from confronting issues of identity, family, and responsibility. Rawlings offers a master class in the use of perspective, delving into the minds of characters who are forced to question who they are and what they really believe. In stories that are in equal turns heartbreaking and humorous, Rawlings explores the contingency of experience, and she’s willing to play against convention to do so.

In the collection’s powerful opening story, “Coffins for Kids!” the mother of a girl killed in a school shooting has to figure out what to do and who she is now that her daughter is dead. Her sarcastic humor allows her to cope with the awful absurdity of her situation, but it is impossible to laugh at her jokes, knowing the pain they barely conceal: “Since the massacre, cheese had given her more comfort than she would have imagined cheese capable of.” This story refuses to turn away from the challenges of moving forward in a world suddenly and irrevocably upended.

Other stories turn in the direction of magical realism, as in “Again,” when a couple on the verge of a divorce mutually agree to have their unhappy adult daughter become a fetus again, going through a second pregnancy in hopes of correcting all of their past wrongs. The newly preborn protagonist observes:

Yet, the monotony of gestation was not uninterrupted. At regular intervals, music played. A favorite was Mozart, though sprinkled in were Peer Gynt and jazz interpretations of ‘My Favorite Things.’ . . . What of the life she had lived? What of the person she had been?

Such fantastic departures might seem out of place among otherwise realistic stories, but in this collection, magical realism emerges from a frustration with the limits of the real. In a world where choices to play different roles can change one’s life, it is only a difference of degree to envision the impossible.

Perspective also is used to great effect in “In the Wasp Kingdom,” a story that involves a woman attending AA meetings in hopes of getting her life back on track. She struggles to confront her compulsions and to take responsibility for choices that don’t always feel like decisions she’s made, as in one offhand but telling comment when she says, “Here’s a thing that ends up happening to me. Or, sorry, that I end up creating, as I am chief cook and bottle washer of my own life.” When events turn from bad to worse, it’s by no means clear that she is going to be able to right the ship of her life, and it is not easy to say who or what is to blame.

One touchstone event in this book is 9/11, which plays a role in several stories, including the collection’s crescendo piece, “Outlandish Plot.” Such an inclusion is absolutely appropriate, as it details 9/11’s destabilizing force in American life, upsetting previous assumptions and making it difficult to take for granted the solidity of everyday experience. In that story, the protagonist notes with bitter irony that the 9/11 attacks were poor plotting, in the literary sense, and it makes her question her own creative writing and her own life choices:

Her two hours of writing were up. She has conjured an outlandish fantasy about an Irishman and an American woman and their baby. It’s neither motivated or believable; nineteen terrorists hijacking four commercial jets . . . is more plausible than this farm in Missoula, with the sheepdog and the verdant pastures.

In a world where buildings are attacked and then collapse seemingly out of nowhere, it is hard to know what we can know for sure.

Nevertheless, bringing humor and insight to bear, the characters in Time for Bed persist, sometimes against their better judgement, hoping that they are just a decision away from love, from connection, from meaning.

About the Reviewer

Jim O’Loughlin is the author of the flash fiction collection Dean Dean Dean Dean (Twelve Winters Press). His recent critical work includes Kurt Vonnegut Remembered (University of Alabama Press) and Daily Life in the Industrial United States, 1870-1900, co-authored with Julie Husband (ABC-Clio). He teaches American literature and creative writing at the University of Northern Iowa.