Rebecca's Reviews > Funny Once: Stories

Funny Once by Antonya Nelson
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really liked it
bookshelves: read-via-netgalley, short-stories

It’s hard to summarize Nelson’s themes without sounding trite, because these are the same elements one encounters in most modern American fiction: adultery, divorce, failure, grief, second chances. Yet she treats these in a wonderfully matter-of-fact, sardonic way. Nelson is preoccupied with significant age gaps in marriage, and incessantly wonders about the unexpected effects people can have on each other – especially what legacy one’s children will inherit. I also noted that her first and last lines are always well crafted; they’re so good I won’t spoil them for you. For me, the stories of Funny Once follow on perfectly from the wry tales of family drama and loss in suburbia found in Inappropriate Behavior (Murray Farish), Thunderstruck (Elizabeth McCracken), White Man’s Problems (Kevin Morris), and The Heaven of Animals (David James Poissant).

I loved the first story, “Literally,” in which a father recalls the dubious circumstances of his wife’s death while trying to protect his son from everyday dangers. “This has been a terrible day,” son Danny says. “Even though nothing exactly bad happened.” Life’s simultaneous awfulness and banality is a mixture Nelson returns to again and again. Albuquerque neighbors puzzle over a teen’s disappearance; going back home to visit her ailing father, a character slips right back into her old habits with her high school boyfriend. Another secretly attends the funeral of the woman who saved her life when she was a rebellious teenager by teaching her how to cook. A pair of middle-aged friends find out they once shared a lover; an alcoholic tells her neighbor’s tragic stories at AA instead of her own.

The title story was another stand-out for me. Phoebe is miserable for no particularly good reason (as she self-diagnoses to her therapist, “I’m terminally unhappy”) and has the drinking habit to go with that angst. However, a casual lie to her bohemian neighbors and a near-accident remind her of the good thing she has going in her twenty-year relationship with Ben. “People are generally good,” he insists – a helpful reminder for us all, even if “Life was so little like a science experiment and so much like a cluttered drawer where you tossed things just to get them out of sight.” In other words, arbitrary, but essentially benevolent.

(Apropos of nothing, I was charmed by these lines from Rochelle in “Winter in Yalta”: “‘All I want to do is read,’ she’d confessed in her thirties. ‘I’d rather read than anything else, even sex. Even eating. Is that terrible?’ This was rhetorical; Rochelle had already made peace with loving literature. It was her religious practice.”)

My main quibble is that the final short story, “Three Wishes,”which should have been billed as a novella (as in the case of Nelson’s 2006 collection, Some Fun: Stories and a Novella), didn’t really belong. Because I wasn’t expecting something of this length (there were no page numbers listed in the table of contents of my e-ARC), I just kept wishing for it to end. Which is a shame, because it’s a lovely, macabre story that starts with three siblings (whose surname, appropriately, is pronounced “panic”) delivering their father to a nursing home – taped to his armchair in the bed of a truck. Instead of an eleven-part, 100-page story, this one should have ended with the first section’s cracking last line (spot the New Testament allusion in “Papa? Please, please forgive us.”). Then this book would have been a perfectly respectable story collection of about 200 pages, and Nelson might have later chosen to develop the Panik family story into a novel of its own.

I’ve had a great run of contemporary American short stories lately. I used to shy away from short stories because I didn’t think they were worth the emotional investment, but recently I’ve decided I really like the rhythm of picking up a set of characters, a storyline and a voice and then, after 20 or so pages, following an epiphany or an aporia (or utter confusion), trading them in for a whole new scenario. Short stories are also generally the perfect length for reading over a quick meal or car ride.

I can’t believe I’d never encountered Antonya Nelson before. Now that I’m partial to her style and subject matter, I’m open to recommendations of what else I should read by her. Anyone a fan?
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Reading Progress

February 5, 2014 – Shelved
February 5, 2014 – Shelved as: to-read
May 12, 2014 – Started Reading
May 21, 2014 – Shelved as: read-via-netgalley
May 21, 2014 – Shelved as: short-stories
May 21, 2014 – Finished Reading

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message 1: by Kim (new) - rated it 3 stars

Kim I recommend "Nothing Right." It was the first book of hers that I read and now I'm ready for more.

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