51BfJT0NSdL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_[Penguin; 2016]

Modern life operates by an accretion of details. If you want to write fiction that does a good job of representing modern life, you might do detail-work. Coherence comes later. If it works, it works like a magic eye puzzle. There’s something there after all.

Leopoldine Core’s debut story collection, When Watched, attends to detail, and is made up of some stellar, often very short stories, and some just-alright, longer stories. Almost all of them feature aimless, provisionally-employed, young New Yorkers (wait!) whose thoughts and actions are at odds from their station in life. This might seem like the demographic starting point of way too much fiction, but Core pays attention to her characters’ mental navigation of this incoherence instead of making Zeitgeisty representative claims. For her themes she’s chosen cohabitation, family, work, sex. The ordinary things we throw into our bag every morning and lug around.

Depending on your attitude toward the sort of people who used to be known as “free spirits,” you may hate or admire Core’s characters. They are the kind of people who are constantly exhausted or starving. Often their feet or backs hurt. I sympathize with these complaints, but can’t tell where their naivety comes from: is their desire for personal pleasure born simply from boredom?

One character blankly intones, “I never wanted to be anything . . . I just wanted to feel good.” That might fit better in a Brat Pack book than one from 2016. What’s interesting today is not that species of meaninglessness so much as a superfluity of meaning. The book does thoroughly debunk one misconception: city dwellers really aren’t terribly cosmopolitan. They’re emotionally and socially provincial. Both acclimated to and hateful of their surroundings. In “The Trip,” two New York poets are driving to Missoula, passing through the Midwest:

“It’s so cheery and failed,” Henry remarked.

Susan laughed. “What do you think people do here?” she asked.

“I don’t know. Wait for their parents to die so they can buy a car?”

The following towns were much the same, one little museum of loss after another. “Americans are living badly,” Susan said.

“And proudly,” Henry smirked. “That’s the problem.”

If their motives are occasionally indecipherable, their habits and scenery are recognizable. Lots of half-stoned, hypothetical conversations. MTA commuters’ reveries. The mania of apartments. The assembled grit that collects on the bottoms of your feet in front hallways. Core is skillful at conjuring modern life without ceding to signposts like smartphones or social networks.

It isn’t just the details of daily, city life, but the fine kind of psychological filigrees of consciousness that’s also at work. At their best, Core’s stories convey the singularity and discreteness of experience, like psychology working in Mono (not Stereo). The pleasure of flirtation. The desperation of attraction.

Sex, and its unmoored, out-of-time quality, is a major topic. Again, working against the day’s realities, sex is subversive in the stories. Or, at least, it’s still the site of resolution or revulsion or some other propulsive plot action on the part of its participants. It is, in the words of so many MTV Cribs’ guests, “where the magic happens.”

Or, more correctly, the magic is what happens later. Almost everything interesting happens immediately after sex, in its fallout. In “Smiling,” a couple in bed trace the outlines of each other’s bodies, each other’s childhoods. They pick up a book at random, read out loud, and laugh. Everything is significant. Everything is suitable for conversation: the slow, friendly tennis rally of an unfolding relationship.

A standout among the shorter stories, “Teenage Hate,” jumpcuts among the consciences of an East Side family. Two upper middle class parents, their surly teenager daughter, cats. What saves this story from cliché is its respect and attention to each of them. Unnerved by her daughter (who doesn’t wish to discuss Franny & Zooey), the mother, Joan, goes out for an aimless walk, one of many aimless walks in the book:

A pair of wealthy-looking women walked by. They had such similar plastic surgery that they looked like sisters. It made Joan laugh. Maybe I’m crazy, she thought with the breeze in her hair. But the world is deeply insane. Suddenly she felt happier than she had in weeks.

Insanity. Not the kind that you recognize in a moment of horror, but rather in the cozy bemusement that comes after. Walking alone in the city, you’re liable to fall off the planet entirely were the details in your bag not keeping you earthbound.

Charles Thaxton is the web producer at JSTOR Daily, and a freelancer elsewhere. You can find him here, and on Twitter here.


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