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“Amor & Psycho” Review

October 2, 2013
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The ancient legend of Cupid and Psyche posits that women will put aside sisterhood for the promise of fulfilling sexual love from a man. Yet in Amor and Psycho, the latest collection of short stories from Carolyn Cooke, the promises of men fall flat, and the women are responsible for their own happiness, however elusive.

Cooke, whose novel Daughters of the Revolution addressed gender and second-wave feminism, tackles illness, loneliness, divorce, sexuality, and ritual in this new set of stories. The title piece retells the mythological tale of Cupid and Psyche, only this time Psyche is a teenage slam poet renamed Psycho, whose depressed boyfriend Harald commits suicide. Psycho’s teenage problems seem trite, however, perhaps because the adult women of the story have greater concerns. Babe, Harald’s mother, feels responsible for her son’s actions, while Babe’s friend Georgie is diagnosed with cancer. Like Psyche, the women have a weak grasp of the reasons for their remaining joy. “…the condition of her marginal happiness is total ignorance. And, really, how long can that last?”

Cooke’s mostly female characters share a goal of curating their lives according to certain aesthetic standards. In the opener, “Frances Bacon,” an adult magazine model, Laya, “looked studiously at the painting, as if it might teach her how to be.” An enormous, man-made, indoor tree is the centerpiece of “Aesthetic Discipline,” where a woman observes her lover’s family tradition of hanging their vestments in the center of the household for all to see. “You’d find the sleeves of one of his Brooks shirts tied neatly around the waist of Mrs. Brazir’s peignoit, gestures like that.” In “Among the Mezim-Wa,” Cooke shows how attempts at the over curation of one’s life can fail when a young couple’s meticulous wedding plans reflect a desire for control that is unsustainable.

The stories end rather abruptly; one could argue that they don’t end at all. Sudden endings were a reader complaint of Cooke’s previous story collection, The Bostons, yet Cooke has not changed her tactic. The stories’ endings leave the reader hanging, yearning for closure, seemingly the same way that Cooke’s characters each feel about someone who has left them. Her beginnings are just as jarring. Cooke throws you into an immediate and presumed familiarity with the featured character almost as if you’re supposed to recognize the name of this person you’ve just met but then feel awful that you don’t recall who they are.

Many of the stories also maintain an omniscient, observant narrator that gives the writing a God-like quality, as if some all-knowing being were letting you in on the secrets of others. She achieves this through rather sparse, almost Hemingway-esque sentences that sometimes leave out pertinent information the reader might crave. The tactic can be a detriment; there are a number of times when actual plot isn’t clear or the elements of magical realism are random to the point of misunderstanding. In “She Bites,” a woman slowly transforms into a dog. Or does she?

But in the stories that stick, Cooke provides fully formed characters, if not closure to their narratives. The best two, “The Boundary” and “Opal is Evidence” show two women’s attempts to aid the children in their lives, one a poor, reservation dwelling Native American, the other a little girl dying of a brain tumor. Cooke’s sentences are alluring, and she has a wonderful way of puncturing severe circumstances with funny one-liners to ease the tension.

Is Cooke returning to the comfort of short stories before writing another novel? Like Cooke, the young, unnamed writer recording Laya’s story in “Frances Bacon” chooses her own route to grow as an author. “What better training for a writer than inventing little stories, arousing a casual reader with ordinary language thrillingly unspooled?”

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