Book Review: Catapult by Emily Fridlund

Emily Fridlund’s collection Catapult, winner of the Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction, burrows under the skin to reveal what hurts the most. It shines a light on the ugly truths in relationships, discovers all the ways in which its characters aren’t quite compatible with one another and forces them into (often quiet) confrontations. This collection is as intelligent as it is incisive. I was continually impressed by the depth of Fridlund’s emotional well; it seemed as though every other sentence was another bit of wisdom, and the sentences in between only added further depth.

Catapult holds no punches in its opening line: “My wife could take your skin off with one glance, she was that excruciating.” Fridlund lets you know right up front the kind of blunt, exigent stories that are in store. The narrator of “Expecting,” the collection’s opening story, continues: “It is easy to be wrong about a person you are used to.”

This logic weaves its way through the entire collection: Fridlund explores the ways in which a relationship can become comfortable to the point of complacency, and then your partner or son or friend can do something that catches you off-guard completely. The dynamics of such relationships often become confused, as the narrator of “Expecting,” a story which examines the life of a father and his listless nineteen-year-old son and girlfriend, discovers: “When I lose the toothpaste cap,” he says, “Meg scolds me and Kyle backs her up, so I can’t tell anymore which parts we’re supposed to play: who’s the parent here, who’s the wife, who’s the child.”

Fridlund inverts expectations and norms throughout Catapult. When Meg gives birth in “Expecting” and then leaves the baby with Kyle and his father, the baby appears to take on the role of the disapproving figure in the household. The baby’s first words are Wow and Come on, delivered with exasperation and scorn and sarcasm. It’s remarkable how precisely Fridlund can pick apart human interactions and manipulate them, funnel them into people and places where they don’t belong; whether it’s the baby scolding the grandfather, or the sister acting as a mother in “Time Difference.”

In the collection’s titular story, its teen protagonists explore their budding sexuality and find comfort in lying naked in bed without touching, only conversing as they would anywhere else. Throughout the summer, the two collaborate on projects: they build catapults, launching Lego men across the driveway with elaborate contraptions; they build a raft; and finally decide to build a time machine. They dive headlong into their work. Neither truly believes that they can build a time machine, rather both see it as an excuse to pursue their relationship. When, at last, Katie asks Noah if he wants to have sex, it’s with that same blunt, pure honesty that Noah says No. Rarely in life do we get the opportunity to avoid these sorts of pressing, urgent questions, and even more rarely can there be clean severance.

Time and time again, Fridlund’s characters demonstrate an uncanny awareness of their situations. “That’s when my plan changed,” Katie says after Noah rejects her. “That’s when I saw that what we did and what we said were two different things.” In the hands of a lesser writer, this realization might have seemed improbable, or contrived, but here, it’s the exact sort of awareness you come to expect. In “Marco Polo,” the story of a husband who falls asleep with ease and a wife who won’t fall asleep before him, the husband knows that “[their] marriage had always depended, to a certain extent, on recognizing together the difference between public and private consumption.” It meant something for their relationship that he was never able to see her fall asleep, while she could watch him sleep anywhere, at any time.

Despite this awareness, the characters of Catapult seem to be less certain of themselves, unable to articulate the source of their own discomfort. This is where Fridlund truly thrives. She utilizes such razor-sharp prose to elucidate this real, human inability to vocalize our dissatisfaction or unease. Often, she will provide these words to a character’s counterpart: it seems these companions have the perfect language to express the way the other is feeling in a way that almost fits but doesn’t quite. It’s in these incongruous ways that the characters jut up against one another. The protagonist of “Catapult” recognizes what she calls Noah’s depression earlier in the story, and offers (while they are lying naked in bed) to do something else, like build another raft. But Noah retorts that he only wants to know if building the time machine is possible; “It doesn’t have to actually happen,” he says. In such a way he describes precisely the way Katie feels about their summer: it isn’t necessary for them to have sex at that point. She only needs to know if it is possible.

It’s easy to see Aimee Bender’s influence on these stories; Bender was an early reader while Emily Fridlund was at USC. The characters and the relationships here, as in many of Bender’s stories, are quiet, unusual, easily displaced. The characters in Catapult accept the strange circumstances in which they find themselves for what they are. “I can hear her lover in there,” Mason, the husband in “Marco Polo” says “I want him to be there, I dream him, I make him up.” In “Lock Jaw,” Craig finds it surprisingly easy to lie to his dying wife about his views on the afterlife because, as he reasons, it’s only temporary. “I’m pretending to love God because I really love her,” he rationalizes, “and isn’t that good? Isn’t that good enough?” “Here. Still” begins with this admission from its protagonist: “I do not like her much, Lora, my best friend.”

Time and time again this collection caught me off-guard with its wit and careful language. Emily Fridlund’s debut novel, History of Wolves, was a New York Times Editor’s Choice book. It is wonderful to see her young and promising career continue with Catapult, a collection that is sure to turn heads.

Publisher: Sarabande

Publication date: October 10, 2017

Reviewed by Cole Meyer