Sara Lippmann’s Turns in Jerks

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the book cover for Jerks featuring two people handshaking across a tennis net

Sara Lippmann has a unique, identifiable voice, one that stays with the reader long after a piece is done. Her stories begin deep inside a world and explode off the page with tight and taut prose. Whether written from a first person or third person point of view, they allow the reader to become close to her characters and their thoughts—the thoughts often running counter to the characters’ actions. And the stories take unexpected turns, too: it is impossible to begin Lippmann’s story and even guess where it will end. Each of the eighteen stories published in Jerks, her sophomore story collection published this month, affect the reader in different ways, but Lippmann’s authorial voice remains constant across them, always drawing the reader in, always ensuring a surprise.

The surprise often starts with the story’s opening sentence. “A Beastly Thing” begins: “Then Skylar says breastfeeding makes her horny.” “Rabbi Tales” starts: “I tell my therapist I’m in love with my rabbi.” “Charity Case:” “For all that she wants, Janie knows Mr. Neilson will never kiss her.” There is never any throat-clearing or setting of the scene—Lippmann jumps right into the story, pulling the reader along. This means that Lippmann trusts the reader to fill in any gaps, and that the reader will, in turn, trust her authorial control and follow the story wherever it goes.

The prose often moves quickly, at times juxtaposing humor or consumerism with emotion. There’s a street smart sensibility to Lippmann’s prose. In “Runner’s Paradise,” the narrator decides to take up running. “For real?” her husband responds. She thinks: “It’s easy to make fun of my life choices, but everyone is good at something. Mine just happens to be inertia. I make couch potatoes look spry.” Later, the narrator thinks to send her husband an article by Dr. Ruth but realizes that they don’t need her advice: “Without mouths or hands we come together and fit. Like Velcro. Like plugs to sockets, Lego pieces in a trademarked kit, we make each other whole.” Both of these types of juxtaposition allow the reader to see whatever emotion is being described in a new and unique way; the emotional response often carries both more weight and a shock of surprise because it is seen in this manner.

This works especially well in flash fiction, and Lippmann excels at creating these smaller narratives, of knowing when and how to pivot toward the end. In “There’s a Joke Here Somewhere and It’s On Me,” a 550 word story, the pivot comes after the young narrator has been cared for—when her mother is away—by Catholic schoolgirls, MTV, the next door rabbi’s wife, and her friend Sally Sellers’s family. Then: “In 1984, I had Bruce Springsteen. I had Dancing in the Dark. I lay on my mother’s bed, mandala print, drinking Coke from the liter, lips feathered in sour cream and onion. I watched Bruce bop to the beat, side to side, as if to an earlier era, his hand swinging, his hand reaching, his hand ticking toward Courteney Cox, a ruse, of course, but I believed, then.” The list of caretakers is both hilarious and sad, each addition to the list a swerve from the one before. And then comes Springsteen. Lippmann uses pop culture to draw the reader in, to allow the reader to share an experience with the character. In this excerpt, the first two sentences—short, declarative sentences that pop—do just that: perhaps we, too, had Springsteen and his music.

The following two sentences meander by way of fragments and commas, and in the first, the sensual details are everything: we can imagine lying on a bed, swigging soda from a bottle, inhaling dip made from an instant soup mix. Lippmann also uses words in different ways, in ways that surprise. “Lips feathered” immediately provides the sensation of the creamy dip still on the lips. There’s a deep sensuality there that leads right into the next sentence. And that sentence, with its nine commas, draws us even further into the moment. It perfectly describes the Springsteen music video and the way watching it would have made a teenage girl feel. The fragments and the commas mimic the way Springsteen moves. How young he was then, how alive and sexy, and the Courteney Cox moment—fake, but for a teenage girl, on the brink, thrillingly believable. “I believed, then,” Lippmann writes. The difference between then and now is made clear, and all the energy of the sentence dissipates when we realize the innocence that has been lost.

One of Lippmann’s hallmarks is her ability to present her character’s thoughts, which so closely mimic our own in the erratic and yet understandable way they move. In “If You’re Lucky, This Could Be You,” teenage Shania is in class during Black History month:

Out the window it’s started snowing, and the plow’s coming through, emergency lights flashing and beeping as it scrapes and reverses, reverses and scrapes, dropping a trail of rock salt. Tonight, she and Brit will share the bed by the space heater, which blows loud as a hand vac, splitting her lips, but it’s the only spot of warmth against the wind. We will never be satisfied, King says, and Ms. Tibbs pauses the tape to say, Repetition is an effective rhetorical strategy. In her own life, Shania has seen the same things said and done over and over and it doesn’t seem to persuade anyone to be better. It snows all goddamn day. From afar, the flakes look fluffy and white, but up close her perspective changes. Up close, the snow is heavy and gray.

The present tense puts us in the moment, and it’s a familiar moment, perhaps: sitting in class, watching the weather come in, paying only a bit of attention to what’s happening in the classroom. The cold outside makes Shania think about the warmth she will find later in bed, with her sister, and we get the wonderful, rich detail of her chapped lips. Then we’re back in the classroom, hearing King’s words and the teacher’s response, which Lippmann has slyly played with in the opening sentence when the plow “scrapes and reverses, reverses and scrapes.” Shania considers and rejects the teacher’s thoughts on repetition, which then leads her back to thinking about the snow. And she ends thinking again about the snow, but also about distance, about how things look different from near and from far. Here, too, there is a writerly reference to the way that Lippmann zooms in and zooms out, altering our perspective. The characters are given room to think and their thoughts often move in surprising and circuitous ways.

In “No Time for Losers,” the narrator thinks about her husband:

Steve has this way of walking like he’s stomping on grapes, like he’s rolling up his pants and really going for it. We honeymooned in Napa. The landscape arid and green, but I stayed in bed beneath a pouf of white eyelet trying to stitch my choices together. Here I was. Not that it was bad. Steve was not a bad person. Steve took care of my wine headaches. I liked the idea of being taken care of. When it didn’t end up as I imagined, I stopped imagining.

Here, the narrator’s thoughts move from the way that her husband walks to their honeymoon, the thoughts connected by the grapes. The green landscape is set off by the white pouf; the eyelet is underscored by the use of the verb “to stitch.” Because this narrator is an adult, compared to the earlier teenager the thoughts here are more sophisticated; the leaps between thoughts are greater, but we can still feel the brain synapses firing as the thoughts segue from one to the next. Here, the movement from the idea of being taken care of to “stopped imagining” is heartbreaking and resonates more deeply because of the way the thoughts are woven together, because of the movement from the start of the passage to the end.

On the macro level, as well, Lippmann’s stories move in unconventional ways. At times, this means that stories end in places not far from where they began. Her characters are often stuck—in teenage lives, in married lives, in parental lives—and part of the purpose of the story is to show us just that. So it makes sense that few of these stories have epiphanic endings or show a character changing in a significant way. But this change is something we have come to expect in western literature, and so Lippmann’s refusal to adhere to the norm, too, is a surprise. In “I Know Myself Real Well. That’s the Problem,” Jim Shepard says, “a short story, by definition, does have a responsibility, in its closing gestures, to enlarge our understanding, but it seems to be increasingly difficult for writers to resist allowing their hapless protagonist a new understanding as well—an understanding that will set him or her on the path to a more actualized life.” This, I think, sums up what Lippmann is doing and why it feels so different and surprising. There is a significant difference in the feel of a story that focuses on how a character changes versus on what a reader understands.

The surprise of a Lippmann story—be it within the line, in a character’s interiority, or in the story as a whole—means that every story feels as though it is thrumming with life. There is a lovely tension that is created between the vibrancy of the stories and the lives of the characters within the stories. Even though the characters in Jerks are often stuck in their lives, that sense of life, of possibility, of creation, runs throughout the collection, uniting the stories as one. Lippmann focuses on the unexpected and on the surprising in order to focus on life.