Saturday, January 22, 2011

"Drinking Coffee Elsewhere" by ZZ Packer

Summary: A collection of short stories.

Musings: Packer's eight short stories all focus on disparate individuals, but each one packs an emotional punch.  The majority of the protagonists are young black people, unsure of their place in the world and cautiously trying to reject the forces of their childhood (often the church, family).

Throughout the first few stories I felt a sense of near-hopelessness.  For me, the stories were primarily about the lack of heroism in everyday lives--those big, climactic, change-your-life and stick-up-for-your-belief moments that are the hallmark of feel-good movies are shown to be fairy tales.  There's a lot of sadness as the protagonists realize their limitations, both self-imposed and otherwise. The short story "Our Lady of Peace" stood out to me, perhaps because it's about a young teacher trying to make it at a rowdy public school, and I could empathize.

I also quite liked "Drinking Coffee Elsewhere," about a Dina, a Yale freshman who loses a friendship over her inability to stop "pretending."  Her therapist says, "Constantly saying what one doesn't mean accustoms the mouth to meaningless phrases... Maybe you'll understand that when you finally need to express something truly significant your mouth will revert to the insignificant nonsense it knows so well" (128).  The therapist wonders whether her "pretending" is a survival mechanism: "Black living in a white world" (128).  But with Dina, as with so many of the characters, there's no one clear clause of her dissatisfaction with the world, though racism does run through each piece.  I liked this type of characterizations because it felt real; the characters are multi-dimensional with multi-dimensional problems that have no real fixes.

When I thought all the stories were going to bleak, there seemed to be an upturn.  Again, no magical changes, but small, unexpected moments, like help coming from an unusual place or finding an amount of courage within yourself.

Packer's stories are brisk, and though individual-focused, each story is populated with interesting characters and quickly-moving situations.  Unlike some short story collections, I couldn't just move from one story to the next.  I found I needed a break to digest what I had read; it meant it took me longer than normal to read the book, but I think the piece was more meaningful as a whole that way.

***This book qualifies for the POC Reading Challenge.

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