Death Is Not An Option
 by Suzanne Rivecca

W.W. Norton 2010
hardback
First collection

Awards: Shortlisted, 2011 Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award

Suzanne Rivecca's fiction has appeared in Best New American Voices, and has received the Pushcart Prize and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. A former Wallace Stegner fellow at Stanford University, she lives in San Francisco, where she worked in the homeless-services sector for several years.  In July 2010 three of her stories were performed in Los Angeles’ New Short Fiction Series.

Read an interview with Suzanne Rivecca







"I usually hated it when men used the term 'make love'.  It sounded so squishy and earnest, like some kind of craft project."

Reviewed by Scott Doyle


Earlier this year, I told the Editor of The Short Review I wanted to take a break. I needed a book I could rave about. Though I believe in writing tough reviews, I take no special pleasure in being critical. In fact, I find it draining: I know how much it takes to complete a story, much less publish one, much less publish a full collection. But in Suzanne Rivecca’s Death Is Not an Option I have a book I can unabashedly crow about. My only challenge is to avoid having the review sound like book-jacket hyperbole. It’s that good.

Where to start? Language? Story? Insight into the human condition? The question is pointless, because in these stories the achievements in one are inseparable from the achievements in others. Not since Charles D’Ambrosio’s Dead Fish Museum have I encountered prose with such sustained freshness and precision - word to word, sentence to sentence, moment to moment. I read this collection riveted on every conceivable level: never sure where a sentence or a character’s thoughts might lead. A fresh turn of phrase was inseparable from a fresh insight into character, was inseparable from an unexpected and uncomfortable revelation. To enter these stories is to stumble into the best kind of minefield - the kind readers and writers live for, search out, dream of, rarely find.

So, yes, the prose is often remarkable, and strikes a delicate balance. On the one hand, it’s some of the most precise, literate, intelligent prose I’ve read in a while. It might almost be described as brainy. But brainy prose usually sends me running for cover, and Rivecca’s does not.  There is never the sense of the author showing off, or reaching for effect - only digging down, seeing just how far into a moment she can burrow. Just as important, she avoids the great trap writing this intelligent often falls into: the overly self-aware narrator, who always seems to know what she’s feeling and why. Rivecca’s hyper-articulate characters may at times be too smart for their own good, but the author is not. She never loses sight of the fact that it is emotions, messy emotions, that drive a good story. She knows, as Harold Pinter did, that the stronger an emotion, the less articulate its expression. Despite their intelligence, sometimes because of it, her characters are constantly blindsided by emotions they don’t see coming and don’t fully understand. The remarkable balance Rivecca strikes is to craft prose that shimmers with great intelligence on the surface, but simmers with raw emotion underneath.

Intelligence is often a double-edged sword with Rivecca’s characters - something one senses in Yours Will Do Nicely as the narrator recalls an ex-boyfriend breaking up with her:
"telling me I was manipulative and capricious, and I remembered how taken aback I’d been, despite my grief, by his correct and unassuming use of the adjective. Big words were my province. It was like being shot with my own gun."

In addition to deftly revealing her characters, the author’s prose captures moments with a freshness and precision that can be startling. Here Rivecca describes a young girl learning to take charge of her bed-wetting problem:
"In the middle of the night, she peeled off her wet pajama bottoms and underwear and remade the bed with the oiled, expressionless poise of a Kabuki dancer."
In It Sounds Like You’re Feeling, the narrator is thrown off by the combination of her blind therapist and his service dog:
"Because it’s unexpected, you tell yourself: the double vulnerability of them, their twinned soft mildness."
These stories are also notable for their length. There are only seven stories in the book, all of them over twenty-five pages, and one, the two-part Very Special Victims, over forty. But there is no sense of the author needlessly stretching things out, no filler, nothing gratuitous.  Neither is there the expansiveness or the bold leaps in time that mark the stories of Alice Munro, the first name that comes to mind when one thinks of the long short story. There is in Rivecca’s work what I would simply call an unhurriedness. She is content to sit with a story until it yields its secrets, and she seems to understand that rich emotional truths aren’t given up easily, and can’t be rushed. One story is interrupted by a two-page letter that is, in retrospect, utterly essential to the story, but is the kind of thing many teachers or editors would urge to be cut or whittled down. In an interview, Rivecca challenges the generally accepted notion that "tightening" is always a virtue, and her work is testimony to what can be achieved when stories aren’t, as she puts it, artificially foreshortened for punchy effect.

These stories are hardly aimless, but neither do they feel aimed, and I didn’t realize until reading them how pervasive and restrictive that feeling of being aimed is, especially in short stories. A reader should feel led, and in sure and capable hands - but feeling aimed is another thing. So many literary short stories these days fall into a predictable pattern: the hook up front, a bit of backstory to set the scene, cut back to the present, etc. One senses at times the presence of a basic template. Death Is Not An Option offers a welcome reprieve from that feeling. The unhurried quality of these stories allows them to take on fresh shapes and fresh rhythms. Rivecca gives her work room to breathe.

There is much more to say about this collection. Rivecca pretty much pulls everything off.  There is a long story in second person, another about a writer - both usually bad ideas in my book; but not here. She writes with great candor about sexuality: from harassment and abuse, to a teenaged girl having trouble negotiating the mechanics of a tampon. But the sexual content never feels self-consciously provocative. In an interview accompanying the press notes, the author says, "I feel that we need a language for that part of ourselves that is mysterious, subjective, and fraught."

These are funny stories, sometimes dark stories. But they are also compassionate stories.  They are not explicitly about faith, but there is an attunement to, and respect for, the life of the spirit, and the careful reader will note words like "mercy" and "benediction" surface in key moments. Like its title, this collection is, in its own way, hopeful and affirmative.

Is this book perfect? A masterpiece? Not quite. There is for me one story that falls just a bit short. And if I had the author’s ear, I’d say, be less fine. Pick moments where you allow the language - right down to the syntax, the word - to become as unruly and untamed as the inner lives of your wonderfully flawed characters. But as a debut, this collection is a marvel, a challenge and standard for readers and writers alike; and a promise of greater things to come, for the author, for all of us.


Read a story from this collection in Blackbird


Scott Doyle lives in Los Angeles and writes mainly short fiction.  In print he has stories in New Madrid, River Oak Review, and Confrontation.  Online he has stories in 580 Split and Night Train.  He is at work on a novel-in-stories..

Scott's other Short Reviews: Alix Ohlin "Babylon and Other Stories"

Axel Thormahlen "A Happy Man"

"Visiting Hours" edited by Dan Wickett

"Dead Boys" by Richard Lange"

Deb Olin Unferth, Sarah Manguso, Dave Eggers "One Hundred and Forty-Five Stories in a Small Box"

Barb Johnson "More of This World or Maybe Another"
                     
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If you liked this book you might also like....

Mary Gaitskill "Bad Behaviour"

Charles Ambrosio "Dead Fish Museum"

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