While the title of Amie Barrodale’s debut story collection, You Are Having a Good Time, is taken from its epigraph, it also seems a directive from Barrodale to the reader. And, indeed, you will have a good time reading this collection, but you will have an even better time on your second or third read. The flatness of the prose and the disconnection between characters can initially create a distance between the reader and the stories. As you continue reading, though, the echoes within and between the stories build and grow. The sense of surprise—of never knowing where a story is heading—is embedded in every story, and the characters—who are so truly drawn that they seem like people we know or perhaps are even stark reflections of our inner selves—begin to haunt the reader and stay with us long after we have finished reading.
At times, Barrodale’s prose and the way in which she finds dry humor in her characters and their situations is reminiscent of the work of Akhil Sharma. In “Catholic,” the first-person female narrator is discussing a friend:
Lee and I were still friends, for one reason: we often saw each other at Starbucks. We were the only people like us who went to Starbucks. At first we ignored each other. I would have been okay to leave it that way but Lee was a descendant of John Singer Sargent so he had excellent manners.
Her stories also align with Sharma’s in their unflinching look at the ways in which we behave in the world, the often cruel ways we treat one another, and the difficulty of creating a true connection. Like Sharma, Barrodale rarely allows her characters to deeply reflect on their own behavior, but her stories implicitly ask the reader to do just that. Several stories leap ahead in time at the end, and it is in that moment of reflection, that backward gaze at the story’s events from a future place that the meaning of the story begins to click into place.
There are also moments that remind the reader of Chris Kraus, Ben Lerner and others working in the sub-genre of autofiction. In “Catholic,” the first person narrator, who is in a relationship with a drummer, is unnamed until late in the story when she writes the drummer to tell him that her guru has given her a name. The drummer responds “No more Amie?” and we are made suddenly aware that this might, in fact, be autofiction. In “Mynahs,” two poets initially meet in John Berryman’s workshop; William Shawn is mentioned later. These insertions of real people into the stories highlight the ways in which the stories feel real and true; even when situations and characters seem somewhat farfetched, we believe them because of the strong authorial voice and the constant grounding in the real world.
The collection is evenly split between narrators of both genders; Barrodale writes with a consistent tone and voice from both male and female points-of-view. It’s as if the gender of the protagonist is sublimated to the story’s other concerns. “William Wei,” the first story in the collection, is perhaps the most well-known as it won The Paris Review’s Plimpton Prize in 2015. (You can hear James Franco read this story here.) Told from a first person male point-of-view, the story is a perfect introduction to Barrodale’s prose style and her constant exploration of our inability to connect.
The themes and echoes run so deep in this collection that the edges blur from one story to the next. Buddhism, therapy, and eating disorders appear frequently. The author of the epigraph is Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche, a Buddhist lama and teacher, and a lama—perhaps the same one—returns in the final story “Rinpoche.” We hear briefly of a therapist’s estranged wife—also a therapist— in “Frank Advice for Fat Women”; in “Catholic,” the narrator visits her therapist, and we wonder if this could be the ex-wife.
The tightest connection between stories, though, occurs with “Animals” and “The Imp,” which appear in sequential order in the collection. A screenplay called The Imp is the inciting incident in “Animals” when a director sends it to a young actress. There is a drawing on the front of the screenplay “of what looked like a plume of smoke. Later Libby saw that the smoke had a wild-eyed, mischievous face and multiple-curled fists.” The part that she ends up playing in the movie is that of Kate, a young woman in an abusive relationship. At one point, they are rehearsing a scene, and the actress repeats her line (“I guess you can’t talk about the imp.”) five times over the course of the rehearsal. We get no real information as to the context of the line from the screenplay. It’s funny and yet full of mystery.
In “The Imp,” Kate is the narrator’s wife. The narrator has a different name from the husband in the screenplay but the domestic abuse scene is mirrored, with a line of dialogue picked up verbatim. And at the very end of the story, following the domestic abuse, the narrator sees the imp, which had not been mentioned before in the story: “She was dirty and slimy like something that had been in the drain for decades. She was made of hair and slime. She had her hands around my throat.” So the two-story pair starts and ends with differing images of the imp and yet the images are clearly connected and inherently related.
What is fascinating about all these connections is that so often Barrodale is writing about misconnections and misunderstandings. The irony of these missed connections in a fictional world that is so tightly woven only heightens our understanding of the import of our inability to connect. In some respects, these stories work a bit on the reader like poetry. It’s often hard to pinpoint what each story is about—the ever-elusive meaning—but they work on us, over time, through Barrodale’s use of voice, humor, and her constant exploration of the human condition.
Publication Date: July 5, 2016
Publisher: FSG Originals
Reviewed by Laura Spence-Ash