Every now and then you discover a new author just before their first book comes out. You read their work and are bowled over by it. And then you get to be the first one to tell everyone about it! At least, if you’re lucky.
Keeping this in mind, you’ll understand that I could not be more pleased to introduce you to Marie-Helene Bertino’s debut short story collection, Safe as Houses. In its pages, characters catch glimpses of their younger selves at stoplights and go on dates with idealized versions of their exes. Robbers steal macaroni valentines, and salesmen peddle beating human hearts. Flocks of hummingbirds manifest in the middle of shopping malls. An alien faxes notes on humanity back home. Bob Dylan comes to Thanksgiving dinner.
Taking the surreal as a given, these stories spin the world around and make the familiar new again.
The opening story, “Free Ham," is realistic enough in terms of plot: a young woman (our narrator) and her mother are forced out of their home by a fire. She wins a free ham from a grocery store, adopts “the world’s least identifiable dog, Stanley,” and has a confrontation with her father. Sounds simple enough, but in Bertino’s hands it’s a darkly funny take on the ways we fall apart. The ham-retrieval scene in particular is genius:
I make sure I lean over the stretchy-necked microphone. “I’m here to claim my free ham.”
“Jesus.” The woman behind the counter is startled out of her magazine. “Do you have photo ID?”
“I think you’ll find everything in order.” I hand her my passport.
Like “Free Ham,” three other stories distinguish themselves not with any particularly genre-inspired plot, but with the ways they play with the absurdities of daily life. In “North Of,” the narrator brings Bob Dylan home for Thanksgiving as a gift to her brother who is departing to serve in Iraq – things do not go well, though, and Bob Dylan ends up with a fat lip. The title story “Safe as Houses” follows a professor who—grieving the death of his wife—vandalizes houses but takes only memorabilia, hoping to teach his victims the true meaning of life.
I want Jill to run-walk-cry on the treadmill and say to her girlfriend, “They took everything that mattered. My daughter’s jewelry boxes, my husband’s baseball trophies, poof!” I want her to shake her head, locked in the band that pulls her face into a painful-looking grimace and know I have done her a favor. She will say, I will never take anything for granted again.
In “Carry Me Home,” Ruby is recovering from a break-up and takes a job in a convent, growing tomatoes and helping out the sisters. It might be my favorite, if only because it is the best story I’ve encountered about nuns since I first saw Sister Act as a pre-teen. Bertino evokes the agony of a break-up, the weird limbo regions of spirituality, and the sheer ridiculousness of encounters with small children while also managing to include a bar fight and a tomato battle.
As good as these are (and they are very good) it’s the other four stories in the collection that have earned her a place in this column. “The Idea of Marcel” channels the romantic angst of Reality Bites and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind with an almost Philip K. Dick twist: after breaking up, Emily and Marcel go on dates with idealized versions of each other (literally, Emily’s Idea of Marcel and Marcel’s Idea of Emily), and then encounter each other and their own doppelgangers mid-date. “Great, Wondrous” and “This Is Your Will to Live” are more somber, but still replete with hijinks. The former finds Vanessa trapped in a loveless marriage, visited by memories of her long-lost college friends, and stalked by flocks of hummingbirds that materialize around her in a mall, a mysterious herd of deer in her yard. In the latter, Elaine Hemphill is on the verge of committing suicide when a salesman comes to her door. In this case, it's is not a new vacuum cleaner or a space-age set of knives being pedddled, but his childhood sob story and her will to live.
Though it’s in “Sometimes You Break Their Hearts, Sometimes They Break Yours” that, for me, best encapsulates the brilliance of this collection. An alien poses as a receptionist at a business solutions company to better understand humans.
The name of the planet I’m from does not have an English equivalent. Roughly, it sounds like a cricket hopping into a plate of rice. I am here to take notes on human beings. I fax them back to my superiors. We have fax machines on Planet Cricket Rice. They are quaint retro things, like vintage ice-cube trays.
In between observations about humans producing water from their eyes in moments of great emotion, the various ways in which we pronounce the word “draw,” the true texture of loneliness, and our fetishization of the heart, there are zingers like:
[My ex] used to make fun of me for answering questions with metaphors. He’d say, How was your day? And I’d say, If my day were a bug, I would crush it. He wanted me to say, My day was fine. He’s dead now, and by dead I mean dating a stripper.
Books like Safe as Houses remind me of the feeling I first had reading Lewis Carroll, a feeling that keeps me coming back to genre fiction in all its forms: that some people see the world very differently, and that it’s immense fun to borrow their perspective and see it along with them.
In just eight stories, Bertino shows a huge range. Each story hits a different note, uses different tricks. As stand-alones, they’re perfect – vivid, memorable, evocative. As a collection, they demonstrate a voice that has a strong presence but isn’t afraid to branch out. Perfect for subway reading.
So here is the thing about these stories: it’s tempting to compare Bertino to other favorites like Mary Gaitskill, because she’s doing that thing too—that smart, funny, slightly surreal thing. other great short story writers are doing it too—Charles Yu, Seth Fried. They’ve all tapped into some force of short storytelling that revolves around a wicked sense of humor and a huge sense of compassion for their characters.
But these stories have big beating hearts that might just bleed all over you – “North Of” and “Carry Me Home” might be my favorite, if only because it is the best story I’ve encountered about nuns since I first saw Sister Act as a pre-teen. Bertino evokes the agony of a break-up, the weird limbo regions of spirituality, and the sheer ridiculousness of adult-vs-child encounters while also managing to include a bar fight and a tomato battle. How can you not love that?!
Maybe Safe as Houses is Breaking Bad meets something I've never quite seen.
Jenn Northington has been a bookseller since 2005, and is currently the events manager at WORD in Brooklyn. She also writes for Book Riot, is a founding member of the Bookrageous podcast, and and has never won a free ham.