The men and women of Antonya Nelson's stories can do nothing right. As Hannah, the mother in Nothing Right's titular story, observes, "The problem with falling out of your life was that occasionally you got busted for doing absolutely nothing wrong. Doing nothing whatsoever – nothing wrong, yet nothing right, either."
Nothing Right is an expedition through a nation of suburbia – through towns neither too small nor too big that basically feel the same whether in Kansas, Texas or Arizona. "Wichita was just that size, big enough for lesbians and psychoanalysis, small enough for impractical, coincidental cross-pollination," quips the narrator of "Kansas." It's a line that could fit into almost any of the book's 11 stories.
Suburbia's a ubiquitous backdrop in Nothing Right, but Nelson doesn't bother poking holes in such an obvious target. Condescending descriptions of homogenous architecture and tired observations about strip malls or gas stations – clichés that saturate pop culture from films such as American Beauty to Jonathan Franzen's otherwise literate fiction – are thankfully absent here. Instead, Nelson focuses on the people living in these neighborhoods, rather than simply skewering the ironies and contradictions of their surroundings.
That's not to say Nelson makes anyone look admirable, or even good. When a woman meets her sister's lover for a conversation in "Party of One," she thinks, "He was becoming distinct to her now, someone with personality, and though it was a personality she disliked, at least it had edges and angles." Privileged, selfish, even lazy people quickly show their colors through Nelson's style of character development. They often make remarkably bad decisions, or refrain from making any decisions at all. Nelson's insightful prose rescues those characterizations from cliché and returns them as unmistakably human qualities.
The author has a distinct, unwavering style for producing psychological portraits of her characters. Often written in the third person, the stories slip effortlessly and often into unsentimental, unguarded thoughts. In "Kansas," Anna is begrudgingly pregnant for the second time by a husband she'd rather leave, "She was still exhausted from Cherry Sue, who has only this month finally been weaned – by force. Just when Anna thought she might possess her body all alone – hers, and no one else's – here she was hostage again."
In "Nothing Right," Hannah is repulsed by her teenage son, "she didn't want to share a bathroom or kitchen, bar soap or utensils with her own boy." Such plainspoken revelations elicit both shock and sympathy. They appear in between dialogue about quotidian tasks like catching a ride to school or arriving at a meeting. Nelson walks a fascinatingly subtle line between exposing her characters' faults and creating earnest connections through those faults.
Most of the stories revolve around a major, yet unsurprising event. Hannah's teenage son impregnates his drug-addicted girlfriend. A compulsive liar deceives her way into spending the holidays with her professor. A traveling businesswoman has an affair while out of town. A couple of kids run away for a couple of days. These kinds of events are nothing new, but Nelson's talent is in making them seem new, in bringing out the "edges and angles."
As a collection, though, Nothing Right keeps a narrow, somewhat repetitive focus. The stories are best read separately, with a little time to breathe in between. Otherwise, you might find yourself confusing one disillusioned, vaguely alcoholic mother for an entirely separate dissatisfied, definitely alcoholic mother. Like most short story collections, the book lacks any overarching structure.
That lack, though, allows Nelson to master the small moments. Nothing Right takes pleasure in letting stray thoughts drift out of context and stumble into revelation. In "Party of One," as the argument heats up between Emily and her sister's lover, Emily gets distracted by the bartender and thinks, "Would it be interesting to tend bar? Would it make you wise? Or just jaded? Were the two the same?" It's a vulnerable, strikingly honest question and Nelson – rightfully – doesn't answer it.
Nothing Right by Antonya Nelson. Bloomsbury USA. $25. 304 pp.
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