Seattle author Ruth Joffre's debut short story collection Night Beast and Other Stories is all about love. The women in these stories don't have much else in common but love: love for boyfriends and girlfriends, love for mothers and children, love for themselves. They're not love stories, exactly, so much as stories about love.
That's an important distinction. Love stories tend to fall along binary lines: they have happy endings, or they have sad endings. You're either Love Actually or you're Romeo and Juliet. But Joffre's stories aren't as simple and straightforward as that. Whether the main characters in these stories get what they want or not, they're strong enough to keep going. No character leaves these stories unchanged, but even if they're broken beyond repair they still survive.
Joffre's fiction defies obvious genre classification. In the first story, "Nitrate Nocturnes," humans have timers built into their arms that count down the seconds until they meet their soul mates. It's not as romantic as it sounds:
Fiona's timer read: 40 33 04 21 53 08. Years, weeks, days, hours, minutes, seconds...One day, she would reach completion: 00 00 00 00 00 00. Her timer would ring out, as if she had just won a sweepstakes at a supermarket, and the numbers inside her wrist would flash repeatedly before fading quietly into her skin. But the timer could not tell her if she would be happy. Oftentimes, soul mates, having spent their entire lives waiting for completion, had to reconcile their fantasies of the future with a bleak and unsatisfying reality.
It must be noted that this premise isn't the most original; a low-budget 2009 film called TiMER is built around the same basic countdown idea, though to much more conventional effect. But Joffre uses the conceit of "Nitrate Nocturnes" to a very different effect than the rom-com trappings of TiMER: she's not interested in exploring the idea of loving someone else as she is the idea of loving oneself.
The best story in the collection, "Go West and Grow Up," has no fantastic sci-fi elements at all. It's about a homeless mother and daughter trying to find safety in a world of predatory men: "Our objectives, on any given day, were simple: find food, get gas, stay warm. These often took so long that we didn't spend much time actually driving and instead hopped from town to town, earning pity."
It's a rough life, and Joffre doesn't shy away from the ugliest of it. The mother tries to protect her daughter from the world, but with just a car window to separate them from the world outside, they don't really have anywhere to hide.
"Go West" is about that thin line between respectable citizens and outcasts. Mother and daughter struggle to maintain some semblance of a respectable aura, bathing in gas station sinks and trying not to attract attention. When the car window cracks and they put some tape over it to keep the cold air out, everyone starts treating them differently:
...now it was marked: the window was a sign, something that could be seen on the highway clearer than chipped paint, easier than the debris in the backseat or the possessions packed in our trunk. Now it would be obvious that the tires needed air, that the antennae had snapped, that we would not pass inspection when this woman's gaze passed over the hole in my jeans and the sorry state of the upholstery.
It just takes one obvious flaw to make everything else stand out.
Other stories land somewhere in the murky zone between the straight-up fantasy of "Nitrate Nocturnes" and the realism of "Go West." In "Safekeeping," a woman waits in a high-tech bomb shelter for her lover to eventually return to her. There's nothing too unrealistic in the story, but it reads like a mix of Ray Bradbury's short story "There Will Come Soft Rains," Waiting for Godot, and Emma Donoghue's thriller Room. What could be interpreted as a post-apocalyptic chamber drama could just as easily stand in for the isolation experienced under an abusive lover.
A much sweeter story in the collection, "General, Minister, Horse, Cannon," describes the friendship between a rough-and-tumble young girl and a Chinese immigrant who decides that he wants to grow up to become the world's first wholly benevolent dictator. "His English had never been as muscular or as supple as he would have liked," Joffre notes, but "He was impressed by his friend's ability to make sense of the convolutions of the English language." He puts her on retainer as a possible translator of his autobiography, once he takes over the world. It's just as lovely as it sounds, until it's suddenly not lovely at all.
Really, that's love, isn't it? Magic until it's mundane, artful until it's pedestrian, gentle until it's passionate. Night Beast examines all those contradictions and limitations, pulling the characters apart until they're nothing but the most essential, smallest, mightiest part of themselves. It's almost like falling in love.
Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the Los Angeles Times, the Seattle Times, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.
Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant