Big Book, Small Package
I like a mammoth tome as much as anyone, but it’s short works—stories, parables, letters, journal entries, and aphorisms—that I return to again and again. So when I first picked up Joseph Salvatore’s debut story collection, To Assume a Pleasing Shape, I was a happy man: only 121 pages! In the end, however, I found myself having to immediately read all 121 pages again, but not because they were a breeze, rather because Salvatore’s writing is the kind that invites re-reading, and freely dipping in here and there. This kind of writing is rare.
In his masterful long story, “Reduction,” we meet a woman, an academic, who so despises her own breasts that she is considering surgery. Her breasts are “[c]umbrous and mastodonic and lubberly and horrible and hanging and floppy and whopping and utterly slab-like,” and “the accompanying frustration and weariness of having to heft that weight every day was, no doubt, a tremendous strain on the woman’s spine and spirit.” She is in a very bad place and practically longs to discover a lump. But why? Because she is just so tired of being the object of some lascivious ever-gaze? Or maybe because her breasts “implied her ratification of an ideal of the perfect breast, a beauty myth that was no doubt instilled in her at a pre-critical, pre-conscious age by a patriarchal, culturally constructed norm of the platonic breast”? Well, yes, and yes. But also because “they made her look fat.” She is all but crippled by a constant traffic between feeling something and parsing said feelings, de-constructing said feelings, intellectualizing said feelings, and as a result nearly loses her identity. Dissatisfied with mere self-loathing, however, Salvatore turns the story on its head and all at once implicates the woman, her boyfriend (also an academic, an anthropologist and wonderfully funny, equally neurotic character), academia, really all of society, and even the reader in a kind of collective guilt. We are all culturally conditioned. Are any of our feelings real? Or are they residual impressions from reality television and magazine covers? But what if we really feel it? I mean really feel it?
Bodies, parts, flesh and blood: these are Salvatore’s tools and trade. But Salvatore’s great talent lies in his uncanny ability to orchestrate and represent that liminal space that is part of “post-modernity’s” problematic legacy—we know too much, even as we know way too little. Which is not so different from the job of all good writing, sure, and which is why I use the word “legacy” here. There is a clear line from, say, Henry James to David Foster Wallace that easily includes Joseph Salvatore and his kinetic and exacting prose, his attempt to get what life in the mind is like on the page. The refreshing difference here is Salvatore’s ability to render not only our access to that lineage, but a mass (and sometimes crass) cultural awareness of self-awareness so quickly digested it threatens our very system; we almost choke. These are lovingly drawn portraits of painful inner lives in largely threatening liminal spaces, those heartbreaking and often hilarious border moments just before our world decides to right itself, or maybe go terribly wrong.
“Unheimliche” the story of a young woman traveling abroad explores a place both home and not home, “the empty-fridge feeling,” “something unhomely.” “Whatever, Forever,” tells of places between both gender and species, a bat-smitten goth girl who actually bites her lovers, and her love for “some marvelously constructed woodland nymphic hermaphrodite.” In “Annus Horribilis, or the Carpenter, or Cal” Salvatore actually composes—for me a new form, or at least one that I’ve never seen so successfully executed—the “rough draft” story, a story entirely buffed and shined that slyly presents itself as a workshop work-in-progress. This should be too clever. And yet it isn’t. And finally my personal favorite, “Man on Couch,” in which we are privy to every waking thought in the mind of a gentleman at his sister’s cocktail party, while he is admiring a handsome man sitting close by on the sofa. His thoughts wander from an incredibly funny and beautiful epistemology of boots, cowboy boots, faire boots, and Timberlands, to John Travolta’s “indisputable-proof-of-God dimpled chin.”
Salvatore is a teacher at The New School and a frequent contributor to The New York Times Book Review, and all of these stories have previously appeared in literary journals. While most debut story collections are varied, rather hit and miss, usually because they represent a writer’s evolution through style and subject matter, Salvatore seems to have arrived fully formed. The book’s title comes from Shakespeare: “It may be the Devil, and the Devil has the power to assume a pleasing shape.” Hamlet refers here to his sighting of a ghost and wisely questions what he sees, that perhaps it is a product of his own weakness and melancholy. Perhaps it is there to damn him. Which of course would amount to damning oneself. And herein is the lynchpin of Salvatore’s debut, a slim collection that speaks volumes, a brief tour through a modern melancholy sometimes so stifling it cripples us, and so varied in its representations—man, woman, both, neither, young, and old—that it assumes the shape of us all.
To Assume a Pleasing Shape by Joseph Salvatore
Review by Scott Cheshire