In Wendy J. Fox’s latest story collection—What If We Were Somewhere Else—Fox conjures up a contemporary focal point, a start-up in Denver, Colorado, as a nexus from which multiple avenues of modern life intersect and propagate drama in the lives of the all-too-flawed characters. With stylistic panache, Fox grapples with modernity pre- and post-Trump, without ever mentioning his name or his politics or without lowering herself to write about those disastrous years. Instead, the book tackles a narrower canvas: the nullifying effects of corporate America, the tentacles of neoliberalism suckering the even-tempered population of Denver and its recent transplants.
The linked stories introduce us to seven narrators who appear and disappear throughout the fifteen stories. Early in the book, the principal characters—Kate, Heather, Sabine, Melissa, Michael, Christian, and Laird—are all trying to come to terms with a deadening corporate version of America. To varying degrees, they all suffer personally and professionally, and they emotionally regress in their time with the company.
In the opening story, “The Book of Names, a Spreadsheet,” the world of the office becomes one of sensory deprivation. The HVAC system and its Freon-laced air reinforce the anodyne nature of the office’s unnamed white-collar work. This is a particular form of the twenty-first century: overpriced coffee and baked goods, uneaten company fresh fruit, cubicles and computers, staff meetings about spreadsheets and financial risk reports. Kate, one of the corporation’s founders, is our first introduction to this office and its ecosystem. Kate struggles to balance her work life with saving—or perhaps not—her marriage. The white noise of the office serves to flatten Kate’s state of mind. She observes, “A low hum started to permeate the office, and the conference room had a quality like old television sets being powered up or down—there was the sense of a frequency.” As here, and elsewhere in the book, there is a touch of vintage DeLillo. Yet, Fox also offers us an emotional center rarely seen in DeLillo’s books.
For much of the collection, the forward momentum remains flat and tied to the rise and fall of the corporation, even as we jump back and forth in time and point of view. This artful mimesis, an insightful commentary on existing in and surviving a capitalist economy, works best when the broken relationships of the central characters hold center stage: the end of Kate’s marriage; the young barista and artist Sabine and her boyfriend; Laird and his childhood friend; Melissa letting go of her commune upbringing and her old lover; Christian and his series of girlfriends and one-night stands; and so on.
When the book finally untangles itself from the contemporary world, it jets off to reveal a dystopian future on the moon. Though unexpected, this final act of bold storytelling recasts the earlier stories as now building to this damning indictment of a future America and its evident shortcomings. Fox plays with a world upended by the failed policies of global companies and governments. The story “Human” shows us a wrecked American economy and a country devastated by the effects of climate change. The government now encourages its citizens to restart their lives on the moon colony. We follow Michael as he deals with an unequal healthcare system, one run by algorithms, leading to his mother dying from pancreatic cancer. The government wants Michael to become a moon colonist and to forget about his remaining stepfamily. Eventually, Michael agrees as long as he can take his old colleague, and soon-to-be-wife, Sabine. The bittersweet consequences find Michael enjoying a meaningful second life before a final disaster strikes the moon.
The last stories rebound back before this future point of 2030 and revisit Christian and Kate. In an act of selfishness and deception (he’s still dating someone else), Christian gets back together with his wife and ultimately persuades her to move to the hippy commune where his ex-colleague, Melissa, grew up. Here there is a repudiation of modern technology and the online connected life. A return to an earlier way of living in America acts as Christian’s wished-for redemption.
Fox wisely carries on this theme to the last story, “More Terrible Ways to Make a Living.” Kate, unemployed but with another job offer in hand, spends much of her time texting, or thinking about texting, her ex-husband. The sad, melancholic mood of the final pages reflect Kate’s visceral haunting by a return to corporate existence. She dreams of reliving her past life, considers what-ifs about her relationship with her ex-husband. In the end, Kate wonders about causality, that if she had treated her old neighbor differently, “It might have saved us all.”
In What If We Were Somewhere Else, Fox reminds us there are few happy endings, especially if no action is taken. In total, the stories elegize a world lost, of people helpless in the systems of contemporary America, their only respite connecting with others like them.
About the Reviewer
Christopher Linforth is the author of three story collections, The Distortions (Orison Books, 2022), winner of the 2020 Orison Books Fiction Prize, Directory (Otis Books/Seismicity Editions, 2020), and When You Find Us We Will Be Gone (Lamar University Press, 2014).