The Best Short Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week: “Edna in Rain” by Marie-Helene Bertino
Marie-Helene Bertino, in her short story, “Edna in Rain,” (Gulf Coast Winter/Spring 2015), goes to great lengths to make every aspect of her fictional world ordinary, in order that it might more clearly illuminate the absurdities of our own contemporary world. And making her fictional world ordinary is no small task, as by sentence three we discover that—to quote that 80s pops song—it’s raining men. The main character’s ex-boyfriend from high school falls from the sky and lands on the ground next to her.
“Kevin Groutmeyer, I said. Are you okay?
He was more than okay. Living with his partner and their twin boys in Harrisburg, and I said, Amazing! Harrisburg!”
Something unrealistic and absurd happens, then immediately the author‐through the narrator—normalizes it. To Edna, the surprise isn’t that it is raining exes. It’s that she hasn’t seen this or that one for so many years, and he’s doing so well. She’s reacting how anyone might react to meeting someone from their past on the street.
More exes fall and the interactions get more awkward and increasingly sinister. Nonetheless, the narrator’s responses remain ordinary. She meets an ex-girlfriend who lands in a bush next to her. The woman clearly isn’t doing well: “She smiled in a wooden way, as if her manager was watching. Help me, her eyes seemed to say.” Further along: “Rico Denera butt-slid into the mailbox. He was the one who begged me to help him not to hit me. I kept my face pleasant but didn’t stop.” The sentences are simple, understated, as are the descriptions. There’s nothing magical here. This world is grounded and unadorned, and sadly so. The narrator refuses to change her tone, even when faced with her ex-girlfriend’s need of help and her own tragic past.
Even the location of the story is ordinary. The author chooses to set it in the banal center of contemporary American life, where writers in classes across the country are warned never to set a short story: an espresso shop.
“My best friend Betty Sue owns Higher Grounds. It’s raining my ex-boyfriends, I told her.
I noticed, she said, handing me a mud latte.
I told her about my morning and she told me her carrot plants were finally responding to fertilizer.
Kevin Groutmeyer? She leaned in. Isn’t he the one who can do that thing?”
Lattes. Carrot plants responding to fertilizer. Old high school rumors. This is contemporary America—not the sexy, urban, jet-setting kind, not the gritty, backcountry, hard knocks kind, but that vast, nondescript in-between that the majority of us despise but nonetheless inhabit with a shrug.
So, why? The dismissal of absurdity, the understatement of trauma, the casual voice, the mundane setting…all of these allow for another narrative to manifest through the story, a sharp commentary on contemporary life. Imagine an ordinary morning walk turning into an episode of This Is Your Life, where people from your history simply appear, unasked for, as unavoidably as the weather, and no one is surprised. That is absurd! And it is also precisely what life is like in our digital age, where social networking has made it possible for those from our past to haunt the most quotidian aspects of our lives. This, I believe, is our author’s point. In “Edna in Rain,” Marie-Helene Bertino goes to great lengths to treat her absurd fictional world as ordinary, in order that readers might recognize how absurd their own ordinary, contemporary life can be.