What makes us reread something we’ve already read before? Is it a desire to relive our favorite moments? Or because we want to see if there’s anything we missed? Or perhaps it’s out of comfort. To reread a book is to return home for the holidays, a time to reunite with family and friends and reminisce. But, what if, in returning to this book, you’re returning to a home that’s not so warm and comforting. This is the dilemma that occurred to me as I was rereading Catherine Lacey’s “Certain American States,” a book that, when I first read it, hailed it as one of the best short story collections that I’d ever read.
“The loneliness of certain American states is enough to kill a person if you look too closely.” This line comes from the titular story “Certain American States.” It’s one of the shorter stories in Lacey’s collection, sitting at only six pages, but ultimately, it serves as the thesis statement for the book.
The story is about a woman who we only know as Sophia. “Sophia” is being raised begrudgingly by her godfather Leonard, after “Sophia’s” birth mother passes away “while the ink was still wet” on her birth certificate. The two live a lonely, antagonistic existence, as Leonard never wanted to be a godfather in the first place.
On her 16th birthday, Leonard leaves “Sophia”, “a check for two thousand one hundred and forty-three dollars,” walks out of town and never returns. After decades, “Sophia” gets a late-night call, asking if anyone going by that name lives at that residence. She responds no, and we learn that our narrator’s name (we never learn her real one) isn’t Sophia. It turns out Leonard is dying in a hospital in one of the Dakotas and is asking for his goddaughter.
The narrator travels to see Leonard, and as she sits by his bedside, indulges him in the narratives, either through drug-induced hallucination or as a way to achieve unconscious desires of a life he never lived. Leonard talks about their travels through Africa until he catches the narrator off guard by breaking character and addressing her by her real name. “he wanted to know how I was. Asked me how I was doing like it was nothing. Like he’d said it a million times.” This is when it’s her turn to make up a life she never got to live. “I’m good, I said, I have a good husband who has a good job as a manager and I am a manager too, which means I am managing…” After that, Leonard snaps back into character, addressing her as Sophia once again, and that’s how the story ends.
Like many of the stories in “Certain American States,” it’s a lonely story, and that’s what draws me back to Lacey’s collection because of how lonely the characters are, and how I can relate to their utter helplessness in this lonely world. I find comfort in the stories and the characters and I find them endlessly relatable, even on second or third rereading.
What really makes the story I summarized standout is how cleverly Lacey uses the plot to convey how lonely these two characters are. We don’t know the narrators’ real name or even any details about her life. Not only do we not know the character, neither does Leonard, as both of them never really tell the other what has been going on in their lives since Leonard left all those decades ago.
In Catherine Lacey’s “Certain American States”, loneliness doesn’t just come in the form of isolation, but also in never truly knowing the people who are around you. In the first story, “Violations,” a story within a story exists. The narrator receives a literary magazine in the mail that contains a story published by his ex-wife. He initially only wants to read the story to “make sure she wouldn’t write about him”, but as he starts to read his ex-wife’s work, he finds that the story is so unlike the real story of their relationship that he can’t help but call his ex-wife, demanding to know where she got this material from. It’s a stark reminder of how we can know someone without really knowing who they are.
After the year that was 2020, and how 2021 is foreboding to be no better, it’s only natural to want to have something familiar to hold onto. That’s why so many of us go back to old books, albums and movies we already know we love, there’s no risk in experiencing something you have already experienced before.
By: Gregory Bertrand.