Nothing Right: Short Stories

Some of Nelson's stories can get repetitive, but they remain funny, dark, graceful, and engaging anyway.

I don’t know how I missed the extensively published and acclaimed writer Antonya Nelson, but I’m glad my first encounter was this collection of short stories. They are funny in a dark, subterranean way, gracefully told, and populated by characters you wouldn’t want to know but already know intimately. Her women tend to watch life with disenchanted detachment, bemused by perverse thought and impulse, yet revealing little on the outside. They suffer insomnia, irritability, cramps; they don’t suffer fools gladly but tolerate those they are tied to by blood or marriage.

Nelson’s writing rhythms give the impression she is working out family tribulation; too many elements repeat from one story to the next to ignore a sense of real life being exorcized. For example, I believe there is a sticky kitchen tabletop in every single story. Other repeats: the older, stauncher sister on the phone with her pregnant sibling during a family disaster; “wine cures” and “beer remedies” buffering households from too much self-awareness; the angry, punky teenager suddenly softened by maternal feeling; an elderly mother figure in decline; cancer; infidelity; a young, vulnerable son. More than one character fights the urge to slap or sharply elbow an obtuse man in her company, rummages through someone else’s medicine cabinet, notes shed hair on pillows or floors. Each keeps secrets, often to protect others rather than herself. These difficult characters in differing families across 11 stories may seem impossible to like, but because of Nelson’s fluid skill and insight, you end up caring about them all.