Sometimes a story seems to find you at the right moment.
Last week I was talking to a friend about our preferences in fiction. After writing this column for most of a year, I’m beginning to get a pretty solid grasp on what kind of stories I tend to like. (Second-person story that plays with form and is in some way about sex? Sign me up.) After articulating what works for me, I’ve also gotten a handle on what I’m not so thrilled by. As I told my friend: “You know, I don’t think I’m a very big fan of the first person.”
Then, as if to prove me wrong, the universe went ahead and dropped the first-person story “Spider Legs” by Danielle Lazarin in my lap. I was reading the fall issue of Glimmer Train on the train on my way to work, and became so engrossed in the story that I looked up at one point, convinced I had missed my stop. I hadn’t. But you know a story has a hold on you when you lose the sense of where you are, when you forget how many more stops you have left on your commute, when you find yourself engrossed by something you had previously decided wasn’t for you.
I read “Spider Legs” on a week I wasn’t feeling my best—when I was feeling a lot like the narrator, actually: lonely, isolated, perpetually just outside where I wanted to be. In “Spider Legs,” Caitlin, a seventeen-year-old girl of divorced parents, is set to visit her mother and two older siblings in Paris. Cailtin dreads seeing her older brother and sister, Jack and Jill, whose close relationship never included her. When they finally do spend time together, Caitlin again feels excluded: “I feel a flash of jealousy stir in my stomach when I see them like this, for how they speak without words, for what, underneath their barbs and teasing, seems like a genuine desire to keep each other safe and happy.”
The trip is fraught with disappointment. Cailtin’s mother announces that she’s selling the New York apartment where Caitlin grew up, and staying in Paris. Jack and Jill include her in an evening out, but when they try to get Caitlin to stiff the cab driver, Caitlin trips, falls down in the street, and is caught.
Jack and Jill are the kind of characters you might expect to follow in a story like this. They’re both rebellious, on the same team, united against the harshness of their splintered family. They are characters full of action—it’s their defining quality. They were in trouble growing up, they seek action now, and they have a casualness in their attitude that reflects their confidence to fend for themselves and each other.
Caitlin, on the other hand, is a bit of a mess. Lazarin creates a compelling narrator in her—a teenager who isn’t tough and doesn’t try to be. Caitlin’s vulnerability is the most gripping part of the narrative. She becomes irritated with her mother and siblings, but what she wants more than anything else is to feel a part of her own family, fragmented though it may be. Her father has a new family, her mother has her research, and Jack and Jill have each other—so where does that leave her?
Caitlin is perpetually unable to express her anger; her frustration never quite overwhelms her desire to feel intimacy and closeness. After Caitlin is caught by the cab driver, Jack puts his arms around her. Lazarin writes, “My brother squeezes me with a force meant to bring me back to strength, but the weight of my own foolishness overwhelms me; I hate that I have done exactly as I’ve been told. And while I want most to shove him away, I don’t, and I can’t.”
In a lesser story, Caitlin’s anger would win out. What are teenagers if not indignant, angry, and volatile? But what kept me reading was her unadulterated need to belong, and her almost fearless ability to confront her feelings, even though she didn’t always know how to handle them once she had. Caitlin’s voice is even and measured. When she does become frustrated, she’s still able to be articulate, self-aware, and calm. And in the moments when she’s upset, we see it without interruption. Lazarin allows us to absorb Caitlin’s sincerity, doesn’t shy away from it, and in doing so has written a pretty incredible story.
So you’ve got a spare minute this week and if you’d like to almost-but-not-quite miss your stop on the train, head over to Glimmer Train and get a copy of Danielle Lazarin’s story “Spider Legs.”
“The Best Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week” is a series focused on—you guessed it—great pieces of fiction in recent issues of literary journals. Have a journal you think I should check out? Tell me about it in the comments or shoot me an email at lymreese at gmail dot com.