I recently read an interview with Alice McDermott (in the Paris Review’s “Art of Fiction” No. 244) in which she advised writers to “be sure your stories aren’t too much about what they’re about.” I thought of this quote often while reading the nine fabulous stories in Robert Long Foreman’s I Am Here to Make Friends, in which narrators approach their interior stories from an angle, often a bizarre one, and in which their deadpan engagement in a madcap world underscores their own “thwarted longing,” as writer Maureen Stanton has described it, as much as it reveals the underbelly of life’s absurdities.
In Long Foreman’s vibrant, often hilarious world, a man seeks out an expecting couple in the hopes of witnessing childbirth—his friend has told him this is a good way to experience awe. A woman tracks her sort-of friend’s intricate theory about scratching grooves into vinyl records by appearing with him on a college radio show, and a new and reluctant transplant to Missouri reckons with the decimation of a nearby town. In the collection’s concluding novella, a professor teaching Cormac McCarthy novels—and poorly—under the guise of World Literature adapts to the United States’ new Teach and Carry law in an all-too-plausible near future.
Many of the narrators in this collection are lost or losing something, even if they don’t yet know it. “I went to the Antiques Roadshow with my mother’s green marble frog in the inside pocket of the jacket of the black suit I wore to her funeral that morning,” begins the narrator of “Appraisals”—never mind what such a funeral might mean for this particular character. Later, the narrator in “On Brian’s Dreams of Submarines” fixates on her former colleague’s increasingly murder-focused dream journal while slowly excavating the story-under-the-story, her troubled marriage to her husband, also named Brian. “I mentioned to my Brian that every time he’d cooked dinner in the last two weeks, he had made the exact same thing, a recipe involving pasta and chicken . . . He did not take it well, this mention of what was a plain, recent reality in our kitchen,” she notes, juxtaposing her almost obsessive analysis of dream-Brian’s journal (in his dream about a submarine explosion, does he count himself among the dead?) against an almost reluctant unspooling of her marriage with husband-Brian through tiny details, chicken pasta and lonely morning moments. In “Turkey of the Woods,” a man named Seth finds a gigantic mushroom more akin to a human brain, and only through the unraveling of his story, through his plea to an ultra-capable acquaintance who is the type to “be out on his bike and have to pull over to answer, or he’d have to come in from his shed where he was working on a new set of shelves” do we learn how complex and painful Seth’s history really is.
It would be a mistake to assume such heavy topics make for downtrodden reading, however. Long Foreman’s stories derive much of their energy from a dark comedy and matter-of-fact renderings of the extraordinary. The effect is almost a through-the-fourth-wall shrug: these characters didn’t create their worlds—they’re just living in them. Take, for example, “The Gunmen,” in which wrenching subject matter (in the near future, teachers are required to carry guns) is offset by delightful snark such as “Making eye contact with a professor, or at least with me, was for students at this college like making eye contact with a scary bear, except that where the bear might rear up and maul the students I was likely to take their eye contact as an indication that something was happening behind their eyes.” In “Cadiz, Missouri,” a narrator who might otherwise be seen as unsympathetic—she struggles to empathize after a tornado takes out a “landscape [she] found fault with . . . this place without topography, this infernal land that hills forgot”—is humanized by her own anxiety and self-consciousness. After declining to offer a supporting hand on the shoulder to a grieving resident of Cadiz, she perseverates: “Perhaps I should have gone through with the hand-to-shoulder contact, I thought in the days to follow.”
This self-conscious quality serves double duty. On top of often being humorous, it allows Long Foreman to explore both the interiority of the narrators and address social imbalance through problems inherent in modern storytelling. “I have wanted to get across, but haven’t known when or how to do it, that Phillip was black,” the professor in “The Gunmen” says. “He was the only black student in the class . . . It’s worth getting that across, if only because if I don’t then everyone will assume he was white. They will picture him as someone other than Phillip. … Maybe the protagonist of Blood Meridian is black. I don’t think it ever says that he isn’t.” Long Foreman shows us, again and again, that funny does not only mean light, that you can still have clarity within the fog of reality.
Throughout, Long Foreman’s stories ask the question: Are these characters askew, or is it the world they’re living in? As I read this collection, it was impossible not to think about George Saunders’ work, with its balance of wit and absurdity and heart, as well as Kevin Wilson’s Nothing to See Here—reluctant guides seeking meaning within the strange, sometimes applying it where there seems to be nothing and sometimes avoiding what’s right there in front of them. Locked in their own analyses of an increasingly nonsensical world, they dare to be known despite their best efforts. The effect is magnetic, and as the narrator of “Lost Origins” notes, “I think about this stuff all the time.”
Publisher: Sundress Publications
Publication Date: May 1, 2020
by Nicole VanderLinden