It starts young. Disney tells girls to find a prince and enjoy a happily-ever-after life. But it doesn’t end in childhood. Even grown-up girls are accosted by narratives about women that perpetuate a narrow vision of desirable female lives: sacrosanct motherhood and domestic bliss in green-leafed suburbia, or fun-loving single girls in the big city. In her first story collection, What You Are Now Enjoying, Sarah Gerkensmeyer isn’t afraid to toss out those irritating and unrealistic stereotypes in favor of a pseudo-reality that, even in its weirdness, rings closer to the truth than any saccharine-laden princess tale ever could.
Each of Gerkensmeyer’s thirteen stories envisions an altered reality, a place nearly identical to realistic American life with a single cog gone wonky. For instance, in “My Husband’s House,” the central character’s husband has become addicted to “noodling,” capturing enormous catfish with his bare hands. But it gets weirder: The woman’s husband runs away to live underwater in a catfish lair. This new surreality, an extension of a part of life already deemed fringe, is as strange to the central character as it is to us, but when she accepts it as her new normal, so do we. And so it is in the other stories. An upscale children’s boutique becomes a source of uncanny horror as adorable babies turn on the store’s owner. Or a midwestern teenager who likes to drink at an airport bar turns out to be Wonder Woman. Or a husband decides to end his marriage, but does so by incrementally morphing into a new person before his confused wife’s eyes. And through it all, we go along for the wild ride.
Gerkensmeyer’s stories are not only about creating weirdness. She also makes keen social observations. In the excellent title story, arguably the best in the collection, she satirizes the modern lactation movement and the self-absorption of today’s young women. In it, Jan, a lonely single woman, chooses to breastfeed a generic, utilitarian baby as a kind of psychotherapy. And Jan isn’t alone. Many young women go to office jobs and bars and on dates with suckling babies strapped to their chests, savoring the physiological benefits of nursing without giving much thought to the babies. Not everyone is comfortable with this new form of therapy, however. Jan’s own mother wants to whisk the baby away to love him as she once loved Jan. As strange as this altered reality is, Jan’s pain and her attempts to assuage it are genuine and deep. “Jan knows what she should think—that both she and her mother are wrong, that the baby doesn’t belong with either of them. But all she can concentrate on is the need pulsing throughout her, the lightning in her fingertips.” Gerkensmeyer manages to offer social commentary without losing touch of her characters’ humanity.
About half of the stories are full-length narratives, deeply exploring characters’ emotional lives. The rest are shorts in which Gerkensmeyer sketches a surreal scenario in a quick burst and then ends the piece before any further complications or inconsistencies have room to develop. The balance between short and long is pleasing. Many of these surreal paradigms exhaust themselves quickly and would not be able to sustain narrative tension in a twenty-page story, while the ones Gerkensmeyer takes on a longer journey earn their word-count.
Humor keeps the tone of What You Are Now Enjoying light, despite the often dark surreality. For example, a three-page short, “Monster Drinks Chocolate Milk,” begins, “The monster who has been haunting me since I was a kid is depressed. We sit on my kitchen counter in the middle of the night and drink chocolate milk. This is so awkward, he says. Don’t worry about it, I say.” And so continues this lighthearted romp of a conversation with a materialized nightmare.
Many of Gerkensmeyer’s stories can be classified as fractured fairy tales—one even begins, “Once there was a woman who owned a tiny baby boutique in a small neighborhood of a big city.” It’s a welcome reprieve from the romanticized versions of women’s lives that continue to be the norm in American culture, even in literary fiction. It’s also a gesture of solidarity to women who feel they must hide their socially unacceptable mixed feelings toward womanhood. Gerkensmeyer’s intermingling of humor, surreality, satire, and genuine emotion gives these stories their unique and potent kick. There is truth here, masked in the bizarre.
About the Reviewer
Jennifer Wisner Kelly’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in the Greensboro Review, the Massachusetts Review, and Poets & Writers. She received her MFA from Warren Wilson College and lives in Carlisle, Massachusetts, with her husband and two children. She is the fiction & nonfiction book review editor for Colorado Review.