Attention Please Now
by Matthew Pitt
Autumn House Press
Awards: Winner, 2009
Autumn House Fiction Prize
"'What I want,' she said, 'is for you to send my son back home.'
'I don't follow,' I confessed.
you don't, Mr Voice of the Stags. Listen, just announce this. Tell him
I'm off the clock. and tell him I already inherited enough trouble with
the child I got; I won't baby-sit his trouble, too. Either he picks up
his kids from my house, or the state does.' "
Reviewed by Diane Becker
The title of Matthew Pitt’s debut collection Attention Please Now
is printed a striking yellow over a sheet of diagrammatic figures
communicating in semaphore. It’s a code I’ve not used since I was a
child. I remember it involved a lot of arm waving. What better way of
grabbing someone’s attention …
This is an ambitious first
collection.The stories are surreal, funny, and often disturbing. They
are set in convincing and quirky micro-worlds where characters meander
or boomerang through their inner and interpersonal conflicts in an
attempt to be heard. They live in fictional spaces that are framed by
characters’ reading or misreading of behavioural, social, moral or
political codes and signals, which leads to conflict, an underlying
theme that permeates the collection. Some characters appear almost
neurotically charged (for example, Anne in Outpatient), while others’ unrealistic expectations and ambitions can only be destined to collide with reality.
Susie in Golden Retrievers:
always presumed she would use dogs as her key to stardom. They would
unlock the door for her, and then she’d give them up. Someday she’d
groom the right terrier, nurse and ill greyhound back to health, which
would lead to a producer or casting agent re-sculpting Susie’s life
into the mold of instant fame. They would discover her. Conan O’Brien
would marvel at how she got her start. The humble beginnings from which
she’d phoenixed. After seeing your movie, he’d say, I find it hard to
believe you were ever just a dog lady.
In Goes Without Saying, A&R "asshole" Stir’s expectations are dashed by his young son Philip’s deafness.
feels the abrupt absence of words. Cheated. […] Before the birth, Stir
had dreamed of Philip someday shadowing his career. But there won’t be
any shadow, and so this job, and all the energy Stir has poured into
it, seems now to have drained away. Imagine having a son, he’d imagined
asking Azita, who can’t seize any of the sounds you rely on for
pleasure and purpose.
His frustrations are clear:
course the boy is not perfect. It’s holy Hell getting Philip to bathe.
He has a habit, beyond the boundaries of a "phase" of poking women who
wear ruby lipstick. And - he is not perfect because he cannot hear the
dishwasher hissing, and is liable to open its door during the drying
cycle and get scalded by steam. And - he doesn’t hear the shrieks of
hypersensitive car alarms he touches in parking lots; the neighbor’s
kid yelling goodbye in the hallway. Or any of the beloved songs Stir
knows note for note.
was one of my favourite stories. While I had little patience with Stir,
the resolution (when Philip finds a way of getting his father’s
attention) is simple, surprising, imaginative and understated, a
quality of Pitt’s writing that really impressed.
This is not pared down short fiction. Each paragraph is packed with life … From Answers to Frequently Asked Questions:
of his hotel room, Benny is drawn to bodies. Leaving the duck on his
nightstand, he takes the EL to Finishers, a dance club near
Wrigleyville he hits each time his work brings him to the Windy City.
Inside the club a spinning disco ball whirls, producing an effect like
a fish on a racetrack. The dancers make small, vibrating steps that
seem to lack true motion. Benny chucks Kipper, the bartender, on his
shoulder. Kipper has a crooked smile, a shaved head, earlobes fenced in
with metal hoops and studs. His every fourth word is "fucking"; his
every fifth, "cunt". Kate would not like him.
... and people - sometimes crowds of them. This works particularly well in Attention Please Now and Outpatient where they are an essential backdrop bringing wider conflicts into focus or act as counterpoint.
In Outpatient, a secret lesbian affair is carried out against the backdrop of TV news coverage of the "Pariah Parade":
Nefa took a last swallow of milk. "Freaks."
"I’ll change it, I’ll change it." Weren’t they two of the freaks?
"You want me to say I sympathize?’ Nefa asked, turning her face to Anne.
"I do. You want me to say what goes on mornings in this house has anything to do with that parade? I won’t."
"I want to hear that what goes on in this house means enough to you to protect. If it came to that."
face went standstill, a stationary front. "Lord. Tell me," she said,
"is it always such a pain in the ass being with a woman?"
The stories veer from global to personal and often hint at something wider or less tangible:
From Golden Retrievers:
complained to Susie - each chance she got - that she was misreading
signs. "He lopes in and dashes your heart apart every weekend. You keep
dressing for a first date; he shows up looking like he’s come to paint
your house." […] In time, though Susie grew less sure. Grew sick of
Michael’s sexless attention. She was tired of washing her sheets for
his weekend visits, only to have him sleep on the couch. She was tired
of him apologizing for bringing half-wilted flowers, apologizing for
falling asleep in the middle of movies, apologizing for being the
kindest man she knew at a time when she couldn’t recognise kindness; or
worse, a time when she tried to stare kindness down, burn holes in it,
ignite it into something else.
collection is attention-grabbing. It’s got some great ideas, is packed
with atmosphere, dialogue and sandwiched with some elegant prose. A lot
to like, from an author who understands what’s going on out there. Hats
off to Pitt for making us listen.