Right on the Money: One Dollar Stories by Jessica Garrison
by Howard Brad Halverson
We met at bar in LA. She was introduced to me because I was caught conversating about Georges Bataille the night before, the hostess of the party being so taken aback by this, exclaiming in shock “someone is talking about books at my party?” She subsequently had to introduce me to her writer friend. It was a sunny Sunday afternoon and I shared my cigarettes with Jessica, rolling one for her and one for our liaison too. Ms. Garrison had such a quiet composition, placid, and let me talk at her about my ideas of writing. It was so casual the thing called networking didn’t seem to apply. But we exchanged emails, sent a few brief messages then she all but disappeared from my conscious until a year or so had lapsed and I was gutting out my inbox and stumbled across an old message for a reading she was part of. I followed the link in the email, vaguely recalling her to discover she recently published a collection of stories. One Dollar Stories is the title. I ordered a copy immediately intrigued to learn more about the aspiring author.
There is a lot to say about Ms. Garrison, about what she’s written. The book is one of economy; the price in the title bespeaks of her thrifty style, the imagery of money isn’t as relative. Minimalism, succinctness, structure so compact it challenges the notion of narrative as being excessive and bulky. The collection comprises 12 stories in 65 pages altogether, so you don’t get the wrong idea that substance is lacking in One Dollar Stories. The reader is definitely the beneficiary of Garrison’s sense of bargain. It is a virtue to have such light and direct prose that the nuances of description, details of experience, colors of expression are all effortlessly delivered. I don’t want to make you think that One Dollar Stories’ content only skims the surface either. Density is imparted by occlusion. The lines of the stories may be sipped up quickly, they buzz past with the simplicity of diligent honey bees, but they savor with raw resilience. The story “White Focus” draws characters through dialogue alone, omitting the convention of a narrative account. Its brevity strikes directly as pure drama and after you finish the story in about one minute your head whirls at how it is possible. That is real and tangible as not being a story by having a quality of actuality, one where you can get in a chuckle before you go “Fuck dude fuck” at the tragedies of contemporary society.
Garrison doesn’t relegate herself to hyper-realism only. The stylistic approaches vary as much as there are stories. Another of her distinguishing forms is a dream-type surrealism. The psychoanalytical aspect of dream interpretation is not so compelling to the threads of floating symbolism, out of context speech, and partial or morphing landscapes. Dissociated compulsions and submerged anxieties are revealed in Garrison’s subconscious cut-a-ways. “Peaking” can only happen out of sequence with reality, some psyche where fluttering blue birds place a wedding ring on the finger of a female character whose attempts to smoke are constantly thwarted. Seeming like nonsense, subconscious indications utilize a language more aligned with portraying a true nature of psychological motives. And where the dream scenario is over saturated with fantastical ideas, the motif abused by escapist intentions, Garrison selects a tone of confronting neurotic idealization and behavior that inhibit a clear knowledge of the self.
In “Russia” sexuality is a little more explicit as well as a displacement of ethnic identity with those of political or national sentiments. Overt violence intensifies the interaction; acculturation is not isolated to competing factions but intrudes into intercourse, putting the reader on edge, churning with questions whether the violence is non-consensual or arousing. The terror is only adverted by the story morphing into absurd symbolisms, bold associations eclipsing the reality they evolved from. Like the subconscious indications of dreamscapes, the replacement of actuality for abstract forms implies a coded message, an interaction of humanity with the symbolic structures attempting to give it meaning. The charismatic portrayal of these structures in surrealistic misalignment functions as enclosing the distance from symbolism and the human aspect; where Garrison’s protagonist is differentiated from a real ethnic or national experience other then uttering “’I am Russian,’” the metamorphosis from being naked in her kitchen to being naked on tundra simulates that physicality so that the metonym of her utterance isn’t left without a causal link. The charisma of surrealism doesn’t rely entirely on the distance between symbolization and experience. “Madonna Inn” charges ordinary reality with such strangeness and decadence you seem to have been transplanted into this Lynchian alter-dimension featuring “those two,” a pair of ventriloquist dummies, albeit in a silent role, their capacity for pseudo-speech antagonized without utterance. Eerie as this sounds, it’s not so difficult to place in the context of a realistic situation, jarring readers from their usual expectations to accentuate a symbolism derived directly from possibility.
Perhaps the most distinguishing feature in One Dollar Stories is the transformation of the ordinary into sensuality. This is directly accomplished through Garrison making every mundane gesture into an affair of intimacy. From looking at your forearm in a mirrored table or banging you knee on a table, these actions, that for the most part hold no broad meaning, contribute to the experience of persona. Characters are built by Garrison through these simple descriptions of behavior and bare strands of dialogue. “Man with No Memory” dissimulates endearment, awkwardly upsetting the intentions of “’I’ll kiss you forever, you know’” with the contradiction of that intention, “It feels so familiar to watch a woman pack, he said.” Idealizations of romance are presented as open-ended or disconnected from where relationships form in One Dollar Stories, plain reality taking up the obligation to portray the truth of romantic interactions. “Xmas” is explicitly anticlimactic, asking a young man back to your place only to state “’We’ll just sleep,’ she says, ‘Nothing else.’” Denial of sexuality does create space for true intimacy but intimacy is made both tender and fleeting by Garrison’s couples, the young man from “Xmas” staying to “’…just lie together,’” but botching every nuance of that shared experience when he attempts to sneak out the next morning. It doesn’t feel like Garrison is after the notion of love. What she makes available are the quirky operations of attraction and intimacy, including sex.
This review may give One Dollar Stories a heavy handed treatment of its subject matter and delivery. On that note I have to emphasize that a lightheartedness an humor are prominent veins throughout the collection. Garrison isn’t interested in disconcerting readers with innovation of style or paradoxical experiences. All that is in the book remains remarkably accessible. It all resonates with a sweet tang compelling the reader to devour voraciously. And you won’t be left with an emptiness on completion of the short book, the tones and textures, thoughts and reflections find a permanent place in the literary mindset. As much as a flash One Dollar Stories is, I recommend moving as fast to get your copy.
Howard Brad Halverson is one of Forum’s Managing Editors.