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Catherine Lacey's Certain American States is America as black comedy

Catherine Lacey: playful, comic and grim. Photo/Willy Somma

Sometimes bleakness is a result not of cleverness but of overwriting.

The characters in young American writer Catherine Lacey’s first short-story collection are trapped in various states: limbo, grief, hysteria, exile. The sense of bleakness is alleviated by the whimsical prose and Lacey’s tendency to veer off in unexpectedly surreal directions. This is America as black comedy, as a very modern state of mind.

In “Family Physics”, an ordinary, well-meaning family try to deal with their outrageously rebellious daughter, Bridget. As they battle to do the right thing by her, Bridget reflects, “It was all a huge misunderstanding, my being in this family.”

When Bridget refuses to follow the script, chaos erupts. Her sister Linda, whose tone is described as “proud and put-upon” with “a vindictive maturity,” remonstrates: “Are you a lesbian, is that it? Is that what this is all about?”

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The dialogue is hilarious, sharp and darkly acute, as Bridget lays waste to the accepted narratives and verbal codes the family use to signal their cohesiveness. She is completely lawless, ignoring all rules of sociability and good manners, and eventually disappearing without explanation. Her unruly, ungovernable behaviour contrasts with her sisters’ conventional utterances and cosy Americanisms.

All families depend on verbal norms to define themselves. Yet there are two points in the story where Bridget glimpses something authentic beyond the structure created by language. Both involve animals: first, she hits a baby deer with her car, and later, three deer appear at the roadside, creating an image of beauty that exists outside words: “It was all too beautiful and too quiet to be real, not here, not in this world, the country part of this country.”

If animals represent the authentic in Lacey’s fiction, they’re also a means of exploring cruelty. Various creatures are subjected to violence, which becomes more disturbing as it recurs. The tone is always sly, playful and comic, but the subject matter becomes unpleasantly grim in places, especially in “Because You Have To”, a tale of decay and dysfunction in which the narrator is besieged by a murderous cat and a sick, rampaging dog.

It’s about here that a sensitive reader may lose sympathy and patience: “Friday I left him tied up in the kitchen all day, put in earplugs, and turned on a fan to drown out his whine. I went to sleep early, but woke up to his paws on my face as he tried to …”

There follows a sexual reference which is pretty gross but manages to be less off-putting than the general tone of brutality and squalor. Sometimes insistence on bleakness is not so much cleverness or uncompromising bravery as just overwriting. It will be a subjective judgment – a matter of taste – the degree to which readers can tolerate the harshness of these stories. Those who can will enjoy Lacey’s dark humour, sharp dialogue and witty, economical prose.

CERTAIN AMERICAN STATES, by Catherine Lacey (Granta, $29.99)

This article was first published in the January 12, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.