by Elizabeth Ellen
Short Flight/Long Drive, 2017.
This is a tough book to review, because it takes a disparaging tone from the get-go towards the traditional ways people try to identify with narratives and interpret them. After quoting an agent who wrote to Elizabeth Ellen that they couldn’t determine the collection’s stakes, the dust jacket adds, “Saul Stories, in the spirit of films such as Gummo and Trash Humpers, has no obvious stakes.” The main character, an unnamed middle-aged divorcee, renounces her previous attempts at becoming a writer, deeming the many stories she’d written as having “no net worth.” Frequently she calls people out for making assumptions about her relationship with Saul, a teenage boy with whom she and her daughter, Eli, form a relationship close enough to upset societal taboos. Interpretation becoming a fraught endeavor, this is the kind of book that would coax a reviewer to adopt its nonchalant detachment.
But I want to specifically avoid this temptation. To do so, from a critical standpoint, to acquiesce to its unmoored posturing, would be to ignore how profoundly Saul Stories does care, would be to shrug off the depth of its insightful critique. What comes across as “no stakes” is the character’s inability to invest energy in things she doesn’t care about. For example, in the story “Televised Images of the Tsunami in America,” she rents a hotel room so she can take photographs of the news coverage of the 2011 Japanese tsunami for a potential gallery exhibition. We could get judgmental about her deficient empathy—“I was more interested in my lack of emotions,” she considers, “or in my lack of emotions when contrasted with the overabundance of emotions in their facial expressions”—but it would be more worthwhile to direct our critique at the ways social media and the 24-hour news cycle and just the shitty state of things is daily trying to max out our capacity for caring, the way a sociopathy is projected onto us if we’re unable to dutifully muster our daily horror.
Likewise, it would also be easy to congratulate ourselves for the collection’s inability to change our opinions about casually hanging out with or photographing underage kids. “You’re thinking: how pathetic,” the narrator anticipates. As in Lolita or Tampa, eroding the taboo itself is not the book’s primary goal. (Leave that to the Roy Moore voters.) Its critique is not the taboo, per se, but the act of taboo-ing, how the process of taboo formation provides us with a false confidence in the righteousness of our behavior. And of course the age difference taboo is our most cherished these days, as it remains one of the few transgressions we’re universally permitted to despise. So it gets all the fury that would—in less liberated days—be distributed more equitably amongst a host of taboos. After admitting what’s questionable in her relationship with the teenagers, the narrator explicitly choreographs the fantasy that the book has been performing all along: “Spend five minutes with a fourteen-year-old of the opposite sex. And not one of the insecure, unattractive losers, but one of the cool ones… Then spend five minutes with your average forty-year-old and try not to shoot yourself in the face when all they have to talk about is colon cancer screenings and Sarah Palin and how we can all live greener.” So it’s a book that both takes direct aim at self-satisfaction (Roy Moore bashing) while assuaging constant guilt we’re asked to feel.
I picked up this book at a weird time in my life. I’ve just started working at an isolated boarding high school again after ten years doing other things. So I’m surrounded all day by teenagers, and I’m negotiating the authority thing, and I have no social life. I’ve never been much on trying to maintain authority through the traditional methods, and seeing such methods fail these days is more enlightening than ever. No wonder kids are so angry. No wonder they’re such little anarchists. They’re moving inexorably towards adulthood—which has never looked more clownishly stupid and artificial than at this moment in history. That’s the only way I can stand in front of them and do things, by acknowledging that, if Adolescence itself were to ask Adulthood itself Who are you to tell me what to do?, Adulthood could not in all honesty offer a satisfactory reply.
Saul Stories is about as close as an adult can come to honestly explaining things.