If I’m not careful, my review of Laura van den Berg’s recent collection of short shorts might end up being longer than the book itself. It’s not that I’m normally long-winded. It’s just that the whole thing is only thirty six pages long, and there’s a lot of good stuff in There Will Be No More Good Nights Without Good Nights. I’m tempted to summarize each of these little narrative gems–only one of its nine stories is longer than four pages–but by the time I finished that, you might as well have just read the book.
And you should read the book. Van den Berg’s very short stories are self-contained parables of modern life and love gone stale and the ways people sometimes try to rescue themselves from themselves. Her characters’s efforts run the gamut of realism and fantasy, from a struggling couple who rents a house by a lake for a summer to a family who adopt a couple of cannibals to help out with childcare. Whatever the mode, these stories are astutely observed and precisely composed portraits of life’s disappointments, large and small.
My favorite of these stories is “Something Thrilling and Heroic and Strange.” This is the one that most directly confronts the conflicts at the heart of personal reinvention. Like most of the characters in this book, Sheila wants her life to be different, but for Sheila, no single change will do. She wants a completely new life, a new start with a new name and a new identity.
“These were the facts,” begins the story’s second paragraph, after she’s admitted to herself out loud, standing in front of the bathroom mirror, that she needs a change. Her marriage is ending; she hates her job; she’s in debt from trying to spice up her life with bets at a dog track, and all her attempts at making things better have fallen short:
She had read self-help books and been to one Gamblers Anonymous meeting in a musty church basement. She had shredded an armful of her husband’s flannel shirts in the woodchipper and gone on a diet where she only ate grilled chicken and cantaloupe. Nothing had helped thaw the dead feeling inside her.
I love this paragraph for the way it captures the simultaneous smallness and largeness of life’s standard let downs. The dramatic pitch of the last sentence suggests the absurdity of equating Sheila’s pervasive unhappiness with any of it’s particular symptoms, as if she had really believed that enough “grilled chicken and cantaloupe” could thaw that “dead feeling inside her.” Luckily for Sheila, she finds an ad in the paper “Second Chances for Sale,” and the rest of the story takes off form there.
I’d like to say more about some of my other favorites, like the title story and “To the Good People of Mars,” but I’d better stop myself here to let you discover them on your own. I’ll only offer a little advice on how you might want to read this book. I suggest taking it all at once, in one long draft, like drinking a good cold beer on a hot day. There Will Be No More Good Nights Without Good Nights is certainly easy enough to read in one sitting, and the stories echo off of each other so nicely that it would be a shame to miss out on any of that resonance by putting such a slim book down even for a minute.
Similar reads:What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us, by Laura van den Berg; The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis, by Lydia Davis; Whatever Used to Grow Around Here, by Lauren Belski.