(Ann Arbor, MI: Dzanc Books, 2015)
Coming into my adult life in the post-9/11, bubble-and-burst epoch of my country’s history, I have formed some jumbled impressions of what precisely other people mean when they refer to ‘The American Dream.’ It is, of course, a vague and generalized term, but is repeated so frequently that I often take for granted that it actually signifies a specific path through life, despite the fact that so many who wield it do so in ways that are, to put it mildly, at odds with one another. So far as I can tell, what is common to most of these definitions is that, however it is one does achieve The American Dream, the reward is a cessation of suffering, an indefinite period of comfort, a happily-ever-after. In short, something that lasts.
It is perhaps the tragedy of our age that such lofty ideals now sound hollow and naive. But in their absence, what might we latch onto to buffer us from the chasmic void of nihilism? In her debut collection of short stories, My Life as a Mermaid, Jen Grow traces this startling silhouette of The American Dream’s modern incarnation, characterized by regret, dissipating love, and incurable inertia.
The characters that populate Grow’s stories are faded and tired. Mostly middle-aged or older, they find themselves stuck in ruts that they cannot figure out how to escape from. A suburban housewife with a hubby and two-and-a-half kids finds no indefinite comfort, but rather emptiness and the sense that nothing in this supposedly idyllic life truly belongs to her. Amidst unprecedented abundance, she must forfeit ownership. In another story, an alcoholic mulls the loss of her children to her ex-husband during divorce settlements. With all the pieces of that illusive dream realized and then lost, she now wastes away in puddles of scotch whiskey inside an anonymous apartment:
What’s left is the sound of water dripping. I hear the bus thunder down the street, an occasional siren, the cats fighting in the alley, the pipes from the apartment next door, the constant tick of my alarm clock. Late at night, my eyes open in the dark, click, click, click, click, click.
In Grow’s stories, this is how the dream dies: not with a bang, but with the ceaseless ticking of clocks in the darkness. For her characters, the story begins in the wake of a so-called happy ending, and from that beginning they can do little more than observe their own collapse. In a rare moment of honest reflection, the alcoholic divorcee realizes what it is she has become, and with that realization comes a hint of something else:
A sense that there were layers to this existence, invisible but real: that some larger life was taking place in my own living room, where the girls played Barbies and sang and painted. The living room! A place I couldn’t see from the kitchen. ‘Something is going on here,’ I said to the corn. Then it passed. I gulped my scotch and called them to dinner.
What unites these stories is indeed an overwhelming sense of futility. These are not characters who suffer the slings and arrows of life, but dust themselves off and move on. Rather, the experiences that led them to this impasse have not provided the tools for circumvention. Grow up, fall in love, get married, have children, buy a house, live. In the myopic struggle to attain these goals, few of them have given much thought to the question, What happens afterwards? What do I do if things run off track?
In “Fixed”, a woman named Jane attempts to move on from her deceased boyfriend by attending a raucous, artsy party. But she is unable to connect with those around her, and instead spends the evening inside her own head. “I’ve heard our relationships with the dead continue long after the bodies are gone,” she says, almost pleading. “Perhaps they’re the most profound relationships we have, those big conversations with nothing.” Abandoning the party for a solitary perch atop a nearby bridge, she watches “the shit roll through, slow and steady,” and imagines tracking a single drop of water as it flows underneath, wondering “how long it takes to emerge on the other side.”
This foreboding sense of decay—of that which withers away and yet continues on—reflects something essential about modern American life that is difficult to come to terms with. So long as the clocks keep ticking by each night, that dream of a simple and happily-static life begins to feel like an illusion, a remnant of a different age or bygone generation. Although new visions of the dream may arise, with new clichés and fairy tales to accompany them, My Life as a Mermaid depicts, with merciless honesty, the plights of those trapped in the threshold of our current moment, too ill equipped to move forward and perpetually looking back.
And yet moments of insight do flare up. Motionless atop the bridge, Jane reminisces about her dead lover’s assurance that miracles can happen. “It made him happy for a while,” she recalls, “to think that change required no effort, that it was simply a miracle.” But her final judgment of this assurance is damning: “[And] for that reason, things would stay fixed.” By embracing the inherent fallacy of such ideals, perhaps her next story will begin with a step forward, with progress towards the other side, however incremental it may be.
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Cory Johnston is the Books Editor of The Literary Review.