Tuesday, July 29, 2014

A Long Hidden Closeup: Collected Likenesses

I'm not yet done with Long Hidden, but so far my only post has been about how I was challenged as a reader, and I'm having trouble articulating the feeling of safety that so many of the stories give me, so here's a closer examination of the story that had the biggest impact on me: Jamey Hatley's Collected Likenesses, which left me physically tense long after I finished it. (General spoiler warning.  If you want to read the story naively, come back later.  Pretty much everything but the twist at the end is here.)

At the conclusion of what seem to be gentle introductory paragraphs, we suddenly get "He cut figures of my people ... How I loved to cut."  Then an iteration of sharp things the narrator loves: "Long, slender hatpins ... buttery leather shoes with pointed toes."  As the catalog increases, the items become more explicitly dangerous "A threat sidled up next to such delicious beauty".  Set in 1913 New Orleans, the opening of the story sandwiches these pointed threats between the memories of a grandmother who remembers the evils of slavery time.

In some ways the opening is very tender - the protagonist a young woman, isolated and hated by her family and caring for her beloved grandmother.  Except these sharpened threats keep creeping into the story.  "This is how you learn to trip and bite and scratch and pinch and fight even when they are kin."  ... "You use your sharpest scissors to clip your Grannie's nails." (emphasis mine)  Even in apparently tender moments, these dangerous words crop up.

By the time the protagonist goes out on her own, the goal of escaping her hated family and avenging past wrongs seems clear.  I had expected that after a glance towards the difficulties of living as a day worker in New Orleans, the story would return to the quest for revenge, but Hatley keeps the focus on the protagonist's long hours, precarious situation, and expanding circle of friends and eventually lovers.  Even in these passages, though, the story keeps returning to "tweezers with and without a slant, needles ... the sting and burn of astringents".  The tension established in the opening builds, and by turning away from it towards the difficulties of day to day life, Hatley extends the tension even as the notion of revenge, always postponed continues to hang over the protagonist.

The concluding twist was unexpected, though I think well telegraphed by the story.  It complicates the narrative and also casts the entire story and time period in a different light.  Collected Likenesses doesn't allow for an easy or triumphal narrative, and both literally and figuratively rejects easy black and white categorization in favor of shades of brown.

I don't think that Collected Likenesses will be my "favorite" story of Long Hidden.  And I don't have enough experience with the short story form to place it in the genre more generally.  I do distinctly remember being physically affected by the tension of the story, and also being acutely aware that Hatley was using the tools of her craft to cause this reaction.  On the first read, I caught the sharp and dangerous words that created the tension.  On the second, I noticed how the narrator's gaze, and the extension of the scenes acting as a day worker enhanced and extended that tension while also presenting a more realistic, and often overlooked, picture of life.  By turning away from the established narrative, Hatley also sets up the concluding hook brilliantly. (Aside - the story is told in second person.  I have no idea what to do with this.)  Collected Likenesses is an incredibly enjoyable story.  It's also a story to learn craft from.  It's just not a story to read shortly before you plan to go to sleep.

Bonus - a few of my Twitter reactions to Collected Likenesses, and a comment from the author.

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