Short stories have never been my thing. If something captures my “reading attention” right away, I don’t want it to stop, and I find short fiction frustrating for that reason. Armed with this prior mindset, I hunkered down reluctantly with Marge Piercy’s new book, a short story collection called “The Cost of Lunch, Etc.,” and prepared for disappointment. Well, I sure was wrong on this one. These stories entrance and satisfy at the highest level.
I recently read an article that described the initial screening for a new movie release. At the end, a young audience member stands and says, “You’ve just captured my life.” That’s just what Piercy does – and what a good short story can do – by capturing a quick-flash photo illuminating some act or thought that rings true in our own personal experience.
The stories in Piercy’s collection seem lit from within, brief interior glimpses into the many-layered lives of women. The author employs the same wry wit, political slant and ardent feminism that have marked her previous books. Many stories have an autobiographical slant, and themes of anti-war activism, sex, poverty, Jewishness and the “place” of women are threaded throughout. Often nothing is resolved, but – maybe because of that – these incisive tales strike home.
Instead of dissecting a particular personal interaction, Piercy often just lets it stand, allowing us take it from there. We seem to have a need to affirm our own personal sulks and glories, to know that others have felt the same way, too.
In the penetrating “Do You Love Me,” a mismatched man and woman agonize as one plans to leave the other. Each aches for a definite “yes” even though both know they don’t feel right together. The man’s speech catches us up in a place we’ve been ourselves: “He does not know what he wants, only that everything is going away.”
A pithy, intriguing women’s triangle enlivens “Ring Around the Kleinbottle,” familiar in its depiction of how women can support, enable or betray one another. The standout, “What the Arbor Said,” is a poignant reminder of how easily we can feel slighted, and how a shameful inferiority often lies beneath a surface of calm confidence. Piercy’s perceptiveness exposes our raw edges and vulnerability, but her characters never affect to be better than we are, only complicit with us in their desire to somehow get on with things.
Piercy’s work is well known nationally, and she’s lived on Cape Cod since 1971 so she’s thatmuch more familiar to us here. She’s written 17 volumes of poetry and a similar number of novels, including the New York Times bestseller “Gone to Soldiers” and the national bestsellers “Braided Lives”and “The Longings of Women,” to mention just a few.
With so many current books full of trumped-up suspense and skin-deep plot devices, it’s the inner activity in this one that resonates. The sublime is forever mixing with the ridiculous, and while this may sometimes obscure our personal aha! moments, it gives us a new appreciation for our mixed and muddled lives.