Sara Lippmann’s debut, Doll Palace, is a great short story collection of 23 stories told with an incredibly strong and unique voice. These stories are brutally genuine, confessionally harsh without apology, and interested in doing nothing else but allowing the author to take her turn to say this is how it is. This is how it is to be a girl, a young woman, a middle-aged woman, a wife, an ex-wife. What the advance readers say on the back cover isn’t just blurb—her work is raw and unflinching—seriously—I don’t think it’s possible to be any more raw or flinch any less. The preface sums it all up with a haunting quote:
So, come on in
And look about.
You go in a girl,
And you never get out.
Throughout the book, it was a pleasure to see her continually raise the bar. It’s common for there to be at least one lull in a collection, with the best ones stacked up front, but this one continued to get better and better with each page and story.
Most of the stories are in the first-person point of view. That allowed her the chance to mix her personal narrative with the characters’ stark confessions and brutal observations.
Somewhere, it must be written: Tell a little sister she’s hotter than cooler than more badass than her older sister and she will do anything to make it feel true.(“Whipping Post,” p. 7).
Some of my favorite moments were these knives, these quick-cutting and decisive insights:
Tami has an unbelievable ability to ignore the ugly in others.(p. 46)
If she knew his sadness makes me forget my own she might reconsider living with me.(p. 90)
She was always feeling “vaguely suicidal.” Name a woman who feels different.(p. 115)
Empty is better. Empty is what I know best.(p.183).
One of the best cuts like these is in the story, “Talisman,” where a man on the street has been calling a woman, “angel.” Three-quarters of the way through the story, the narrator simply states: “I am nobody’s Angel.” Alone, that kind of a line might go unnoticed, but with all of the subtext of the story and the book, it stops you—it demands attention.
There is a lot of this that reminded me of Richard Yates’ voice.
Once he visited a North Philly hooker and wept into her neck, which smelled like movie popcorn, and begged her to clasp her bruised limbs around him. She rolled her eyes but complied, charging twice as much for affection as for sex.(“The Last Resort,” p. 35).
These themes follow a natural progression of Yates’ on disillusionment and precarious intimacy. It’s like this is how the children of his characters turned out: screwed up just like them.
Sometimes I wish I could be like her, feeling everything at once, the full spectrum right there on the surface. Every kiss, every fender bender, forgotten line in a school play, every insult from our mother, touch from our father, every exhilaration and humiliation, fingers slammed in lockers, stretching me out like a mouse in a trap, all of it.(“Foreign Bodies,” p. 177).
There is a moment in “The Second Act,” where a group of couples is at a party—the kind that Frank and April Wheeler would have been pressured into attending on Revolutionary Road.
Husbands gaze past their wives with that glassy, half-boner look, only Ben’s jaw, long square and cleft, is more pronounced, as if he is a dehydrated caveman.(p. 198).
Some of the stories take a nice break from the above patterns. There is “The Last Resort,” which is told from a dad’s point of view while chaperoning his son’s high school trip. The most unique is probably “House Boy,” which is told from the point of view of a 23-year-old former Israeli soldier who, in broken English, tells a poetic story about being the caretaker for a Mr. Strickland. She weaves his language difficulty into pure poetry.
Sometimes there is deer eating the hydrangea bush and sometimes I exclaimate, Die Deer! But sometime I stand there and say, you are my friend, deer, you have eyes like hand grenades, when I vision your blood pulsating true animal vein make me want to be a better man.(p. 66).
This finishes with an incredibly beautiful line:
The whole world is cry. Water flood her cup, spill her wrist, soften the elbow, I drain in tears, but when she close the tap to breathe I pray maybe she have place inside the deep rise and fall of her lungs for me.(p. 68).
Sara’s stories often work in ambiguity where major parts exist in the implied. Either through an open-ending like in “Babydollz”:
The whole time her mouth moves I am practically numb. It is not the full story but I can fill in the rest. Girls are girls.(p.92),
or through an implied introduction to conflict like in “Come See for Yourself”:
Since the doctor last week, I haven’t felt much like anything. It’s early yet my mind is set.(p. 166).
The power of this can be in the flow, never stopping for “writerly” exposition, but it also risks that a reader, possibly someone from a different perspective, won’t get it. The stories also seem to imply, though, that they don’t care about this risk. I think this might be why I liked it more and more as I went on—maybe as I met her challenge, she was bringing me further into the perspective of Doll Palace? Maybe I’ll never get out?
(Originally published at The Spark on 6/04/2015)