(Brooklyn, NY: 7.13 Books, 2020)
Over the last few months, our sense of reality has dramatically changed. The world first shifted with a global pandemic, followed by tremors of protest against police brutality and racial injustice which jolted many out of complacency. Golden Gate Jumper Survivors Society by Ross Wilcox provides a bit of levity while simultaneously paralleling today’s sense of unease. He presents us with a collection that invites us into worlds where the surface is familiar, yet uncanny. With just a hint of Kurt Vonnegut, Wilcox’s debut short story collection is a welcome, and perhaps necessary, work for our time. The collection asks us to think about who we are and how we are seen.
It didn’t take long to feel immersed in Wilcox’s absurdities that play with the question of what normal really is or if what we are seeing (reading) is actually as it purports to be. The collection features a parade of characters in masquerade: a suicidal jumper who is actually a yoga instructor; a faux-wizard who is actually a troubled young man, though pure of intention; a young couple who 3D print a child and, eventually, his classmates and friends; an entire town recreating lawn scenes using animals in a verisimilitude of their lives. The people who populate Wilcox’s stories toy with existence, force the reader to question the nature of presentation and re-presentation, and perhaps the nature of reality itself.
But despite the deceits, we are drawn to these characters. They struggle with authenticity and belonging, connectivity, and community. They desire to be seen for who they are and also, or perhaps more appropriately, they desire to create who they are. We identify, no matter how surreal the circumstance. We find ourselves grappling with the need to belong, while also maintaining our individuality and controlling how we exist in the world. We find ourselves in concert with the characters’ feelings of existential discomfort and unease, and grateful for the deftly woven moments of lightheartedness and, dare I say, normalcy sprinkled throughout the text.
Wilcox’s stories provide varying degrees of realism connected by a thematic thrust with authenticity at its root. His strongest stories evoke an emotional response with the questions they pose. “Nora’s Sweatshirt” asks us to evaluate how and when a connection is authentic, while “Puddin’Suitcase” suggests an evaluation of what these connections ask of us. How can we ever really know someone? What level of connection justifies my feelings, or lack thereof? As the narrator of “Nora’s Sweatshirt” explains, “secrets are public knowledge.” This simplistic paradox underscores the collection’s interrogation of what it means to know someone; the surface and subjectivity are often at odds. What is known is often also unknown.
Other stories more explicitly engage the reader in these explorations of self, surface, and otherness. “Costuming” overtly and exaggeratedly describes performativity in a Makeup Artistry class whose members are “seeing but not seeing” and who, in the beginning, “didn’t wonder what Jordan’s face looked like until after he’d started wearing the prosthetic makeup masks.” Suggestive masking has become an actual prosthetic in this story. The performance of the individual becomes the town’s performance in “Years of Our Lawn.” The narrator explains the “deep, abiding sense of community” that necessitates lawn figures that represent community members because “with no facsimile, it was as if they were without identity.” We are forced to confront the blurred lines between absurdity and acceptance, the liminal space between our place within and without society.
Wilcox gives us stories populated with characters trying to hold space in their worlds as best they can. This collection is a welcome respite from the heaviness surrounding us, while at the same time asking something of us. Its characters want to be accepted, to be seen. As the main character of the titular story frustratedly muses, “Hello, people. I’m right here. I’m right here.”
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Cheryl Weaver-Amenta is a writer and teacher living in Buffalo, N.Y. She is currently a doctoral student whose research interests include education, trauma theory, and American literature.