With One Eye Open
 by Polly Frost

Rapture House
Second Collection

"I started exploring 'releasing' techniques back in the late ‘80s, when I realized that I’d been working on my first novel for fourteen years and had only committed two sentences to paper."

Reviewed by Elizabeth Rutherford-Johnson

Polly Frost’s collection is a restless medley of media: spoof self-help manuals lie side-by-side with begging letters from theatrical groups. Nothing I can write here will successfully convey the delicious weirdness of a picture of an iPod dog (My Dog Breeds) or the surreal inventiveness of a script proving that one of the characters is a figment of the other’s imagination (Tabloid Dreams).

The different pieces are characterised by an exciting and sometimes unsettling inventiveness. Expectations are constantly played with, and from piece to piece you’re never sure what you’ll get next. Frost uses her own name freely as the basis for a variety of constructs on which to display these satires. According to pieces in this collection, Miss Polly Frost is variously addicted to diagnosing the personality disorders of her family and friends, a conversational artist, a theatrical patron and/or con artist, a chaotically compelling data subject. How much of this is true? All or none? It doesn’t matter. The Polly Frost here is a constructed character, as cleverly put together as each of her clever, pieces.

Some of these pieces are pointed – Mommyblog Like Me is a deliberate poke at a particular phenomenon and, possibly, a pretty easy target. Others are less obvious. Friends in Paradise is a lyrical almost poetic piece that serves as a dig on "those" sorts of people who are never satisfied, but then loops round to trap the reader: we are all exactly "those" sorts of people. It’s works as a gentle and perceptive look at human nature: our refusal to ever rest easy, to be satisfied with what we have and to recognise paradise when we’re there.

The most successful pieces for me are deliberately zeitgeisty. Reblock Yourself the Polly Frost Way is aimed at those for whom self-publication and social media are too irresistible a temptation; for people who "ran multiple WordPress blogs…dashed off rants about the New York City book publishing world, sharing them on Scribd as downloadable PDFs." Goodbye,! slyly dissects the real anxieties behind banal behaviour.
"I can’t just write 'Happy Birthday!' anymore on a friend’s Facebook page, because the person before me has written 'Happy Birthday !!!!!!' What? – the recipient will think – she’s too half-hearted to hold the key down?"
Deliciously silly, it also pinpoints things we have all done, laying bare our fears in the brave new social media world. Pieces like this are so light they could almost float away, but the sting comes in recognising those parts of ourselves, as writers or readers, that are being so effectively lampooned.

Read a story from this collection in The Atlantic

Elizabeth Rutherford-Johnson's short fiction has appeared in Mslexia, LITRO, The New Writer and pulp.net, among others. Currently she is working on a radio play about Polish history, absent fathers and drinking coffee with the devil.

Elizabeth's other Short Reviews: Andrzej Stasiuk "Tales of Galicia"

Michael Chabon (ed) "McSweeney's Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories"

Sylvia Petter "Back Burning"

"Best American Short Stories 2007"

Tom Bissell "God Lives in St Petersburg"

Nora Nadjarian "Ledra Street"

Andrew McNabb "The Body of This"

Willa Cather "The Bohemian Girl"

Deborah Sheldon "All the Little Things That We Lose"

Alta Ifland "Elegy for a Fabulous World"

Paul Magrs "Twelve Stories"

Jay Merill "God of the Pigeons"

"Lost in Translation: New Zealand Stories" edited by Marco Sonzogni
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Polly Frost is an author, journalist and playwright. Her humour has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic and The New York Times, among others, and has been anthologized in two of The New Yorker’s “best of” collections. She co-wrote the play The Last Artist in New York City, with her husband Ray Sawhill, which was selected for Best American Short Plays 2008-2009.

Read an interview with Polly Frost