Summarized, most of the stories in Christian Winn’s debut collection, Naked Me, seem plainly absurd. In the title story, a man makes a bet that he will have sex with the woman who lives across the street from his illegal poker games—in clear view of his fellow gamblers. In “All Her Famous Dead,” perhaps the best story in the collection, an adrift, melancholy woman who (secretly) shares her mother’s lover mourns the deaths of celebrities whom she has never met. However, these stories aren’t in love with their absurdity. More often than not, they bemoan it. In fact, the most remarkable thing about Naked Me is that its characters don’t seem strange at all. They are able to articulate emotions we all feel, though we may not be aware of them, ourselves.
As much as we want to hate the gambling protagonist in “Naked Me,” we know exactly what he means when he describes the uncertain, transitional time in his life: “I craved newness, and I craved what had been.” Meredith, the woman who mourns celebrity deaths, seems bizarre in summary, but, on the page, she strikes a chord with us. This is what she thinks of the people she sees: “Most of them seemed so happy, and together, and she figured that if they were to look over at her right now they would probably think she was happy and together and satisfied just to be alive on such a beautiful day, too, like them, because that’s how most people go through life—putting their beliefs and spirits inside other people.” Doesn’t everyone do this, to some extent? Haven’t you ever had this thought? Won’t you, again, now that you have read it here? Though these stories may often seem odd, callous, or perverted—though the reader may want (initially) to distance herself from them, the characters articulate feelings we recognize, they uncover (brutal) truths. The strange becomes familiar. This is the great triumph of Winn’s collection.
These stories, for the most part, are told from the point-of-view of young, direct male narrators. This is certainly where the author seems most at home. Many of Winn’s best stories explore the bonds between male friends that hold the sort of admiration, and in one case eroticism, we see so often in depictions of female friendships. In “The Dirtiest Hamburger in the World,” two fourteen-year-old boys find a refuge from their quickly deteriorating home lives atop a giant plastic hamburger. Together, the friends tackle the seemingly impossible absurdity of life: one boy’s mother hops around the house like a bunny and writes her son cryptic, frightening letters; the other boy’s mother has left. Given this, it’s really not so strange at all when one boy confesses his desire to live inside that enormous burger, to wrench the top bun off and make a home inside. Winn’s stories explore the gamut of human relationships, examining the nature of friendship, family, and love, often all at the same time.
Winn isn’t interested in dressing anything up, neither his plotlines nor his language. Instead, he does new things with familiar words, a true mark of the strength of his craft. He gives us elegant, meaningful sentences like: “This always made her smile, which was one thing to take from all that time.” Winn is like a male Miranda July, but with more depth. Coupled with the brashness of his stories is a sensitivity, and it is this combination that makes them so brilliant.
In addition to longer stories, this collection also includes many ambitious pieces of flash. In the opening story, “One Thing to Take,” the nineteen-year-old narrator shares a boyfriend with her older sister; her dad has left, and her mother has taken up with her uncle. In “Molly Ringwald,” the narrator explores his relationship with his sister and the impossible nature of time through a discussion of the movie Pretty in Pink. Perhaps with the exception of one piece (the collection’s tiniest), these shorts are remarkable successes—they hold worlds of emotion.
Naked Me is brave, unsettling, sincere, perverted, and unapologetic—and it’s one of the best collections I’ve read in a long time.
Publisher: Dock Street Press
Publication Date: August 1, 2014
Reviewed by Sadye Teiser