House Parties: A Review
- By Miriam N. Kotzin
A Review of House Parties by Lynn Levin (Spuyten Duyvil, 2023)
Lynn Levin’s debut collection of short fiction, House Parties, offers the wisdom and humor of a keen eye and a kind heart. An accomplished poet, Levin, author of five collections of her own poetry and one volume of translation, also writes beautiful prose so skilled that it seems unselfconscious and purely spontaneous while being replete with perfectly balanced sentences, brilliant metaphors, and similes. The figurative language always develops character or reveals new aspects of theme in this rich collection of stories.
Throughout House Parties, the figurative language is often associated with trouble, and always with heightened emotions and psychological insights: “invitations which had first blown down like blossoms”; “a veil of shame drifted over her face”; “brisk as a broom”; “a blue mold of boredom and resentment crept over him”; “shame was on him like sloshed beer”; “a darkness like the shadow of a bird”; “a puddle of embarrassment”; “Bradford pears [ . . . ] like petticoats.” A tormented character confesses that “a storm of black birds banged inside my head.” Levin describes a family short on affection whose embraces come in “quick fluttering touches. Birds landing birds taking off.”
Though fewer than one third of these stories are narrated in the first person, they all engender remarkable empathy with the protagonists. That empathy accounts for much of the appeal of this book. These stories have no impossibly virtuous protagonists who overcome adversity. Not here. No, these characters tread on the ground. Happy endings all around? Happy enough, because none of these characters, however flawed, is irredeemable.
Many of the stories have an element of satire that, absent all malice, offers laughter as a replacement for annoyance. Reading the satirical “Tell Us About Your Experience” may change your response to customer satisfaction surveys, thanks, in part, to the description of relentless AI: “some wheedling robot pecking at you for praise.” The protagonist, Jim Gulliford, who had “the face of a man seen at a distance,” exasperated by ubiquitous customer satisfaction surveys, becomes a 21st century Bartleby the Scrivener when he chooses to “decline to answer” the surveys. He continues to “decline” in the face of increasing pressure from a staffer from human resources, a woman with “not a shred of sympathy or human kindness in her.”
The broadest of the satires is “Student Rebellion,” in which students capture faculty and submit them to a “re-education session,” accusing them of myriad privileges and phobias “...now known or yet to be developed . . .. We call for an end to syllabx and lecturx.” Instead of using traditional materials, students plan to learn with websites they call “EduSnack Packs.” The professors, who are easily co-opted into using the language of the protestors, are a senior crew with a catalog of age-related illnesses and fond memories of their own participation in protests in the sixties. As funny as this story is, it isn't fluff. Following an amusing back and forth series of “Yeah, no” and “No, yeah,” one of the professors, Babbage (his name a sly nod to the inventor of the computing
engine), wonders if the “no” may be a form “of gentle disagreement. Gentle disagreement. That would be nice, but was the world ready for it?” A question left for the reader to answer.
Levin’s spirited imagination is a delight. “Frieda and Her Golem” begins by evoking folklore and magical realism in the opening paragraph’s introduction of the protagonist: “Not long ago, a poor and solitary rabbinical student named Frieda Goldstein decided that she would create for herself a being to serve as her helpmeet and companion, an affectionate partner, a support in times of stress and self-doubt.” The opening three words both replace and suggest the formulaic “once upon a time.” This continues with the phrase “The two of them would live as one,” but then, midsentence, the narrative spell breaks with a switch in diction, a downdraft in the rest of the sentence transmogrifying “live as one” to “eating together, relaxing at home, and should physical intimacy feel right, then that too.” (Gentle humor is one of the many joys of House Parties.)
While the Golem of Prague was made of river clay, Frieda uses a more accessible material—a meatloaf mixture—to form her companion, Gittel (a Yiddish name that means good). Frieda begins her undertaking following a class discussion linking the Golem with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The conversation moves on to “algorithms capable of remembering your tastes and habits, codes that told you what you should buy and do. With fear and awe, the class agreed that artificial intelligence was taking over, seducing and controlling us in its hyper-logical way. The class's conversation turned to ethics: to what extent should we let our inventions serve and direct us? How much should we toy with life?”
Frieda succeeds in making Gittel, and the way their relationship shifts over time forms the heart of the story. The question arises as to who is a better human, Frieda or her creation?
In the title story, “House Parties,” Jess and Rand Morrow move from Philadelphia to Edgewood Village, an isolated community in the Poconos, “a development carved out of forest and field.” On the drive to their new home, Jess’s reverie is broken by turkey vultures that swirl overhead like “debris from a slow-motion tornado” (a triple negative omen: turkey vultures, debris, tornado). After a party, howling coyotes introduce additional notes of danger. Edgewood, a closed community, is like a ship of fools. The structure of the story, somewhat like Ravel’s Bolero, intensifies and quickens, as the baker’s dozen of people further define themselves after first impressions. The shocking climax takes place at a party, leaving Jess not only with many questions but a recognition that comes to her before sleep: “How quickly, thought Jess, could long-laid plans fall to ruin and mirth turn to grief. The couple did not make love, nor did they speak. They embraced in tender silence and stayed that way until slumber made them separate, and each slid away into the wilds of sleep.”
“House Parties” does not abandon the protagonists to ruin or grief. Rather than continuing on a dark path of isolation, grief, and ruin, the narrative turns; it ends with an embrace that transfers tenderness to shared silence. The “wilds of sleep” at the end returns to the beginning, to the couples’ move to Edgewood, that “development carved out of forest and field, [ . . . ] their fresh start, a haven.” This conclusion is representative of what is so attractive about both story and book.
No contemporary book of short stories will promise its readers their own happy endings—or happy middles—not even this one. It offers no false promise but an honest possibility: the memorable characters of House Parties suffer disappointments, guilt, shame, fear, yet all find some basis for hope. Lynn Levin's stories are amusing, startling, poignant, heartwarming. House Parties is a book to read, savor and return to read again.
Miriam N. Kotzin writes fiction and poetry and teaches creative writing and literature at Drexel University. Her most recent books are a novel, Right this Way, a collection of short fiction, Country Music, and a collection of poetry Debris Field.