I view everything through absurdism and humor. I think humor works best in literature and fiction when it’s borne of deep feeling, and the deep feeling it’s borne of here is fear, and then the crazy things people do to cope with fear to maintain control, which is really human…
I do write to figure things out, either internally or externally, something that I find really troubling. So I stared writing the other stories in response to things that were going on. … writing is a way of controlling chaos, a way of controlling what is difficult in life, and I’ve found it a comfort to me all my life.
Karen Bender, interview with Charity Nebbe on Iowa Public Radio
As soon as I finished reading Bender’s short story “The Shame Exchange” in 2021’s Pushcart, I went looking for something else she’d written. Out of the five choices, I picked this one, partly because of the description that promised it “boldly examines the sense of instability that has grown stronger in American culture over the last two years through the increasing presence of violence, bigotry, sexual harassment, and the emotional costs of living under constant threat.” That, it does.
Several of the stories are told from spaces adjacent to violence; they’re not about acts of violence or the people directly affected, but about how people removed from the violence react to it. That is, it’s about most of us.
“Where to Hide in a Synagogue,” the first story in the book, is one of these adjacent stories.
“Come on,” I said. “We can set out a policy. If there is an attack, congregants are permitted to remove the Torahs from the Ark and climb in for safety purposes.” I paused. “We can add, ‘Congregants removing Torahs are responsible for getting them back into the Ark after the shooter has left.’” I thought to add if they are alive, but I thought I’d leave that out.
Eva and Harriet have been appointed to their synagogue’s advisory Board for Safety and Well-Being following the attack on churchgoers in Charlottesville. They’re walking through the sanctuary in order to come up with a report of strategies to protect congregants in case of an attack. In real life, Bender started this story as a flash after hearing her daughter and friend discussing how they’d hide if shooting broke out in their movie theater; it changed after Charlottesville, moving to a synagogue.
The two women, long-time friends, argue about whether the Torahs or the safety of people should be prioritized, about how much normality can be sacrificed to safety: a dress code requiring sneakers for faster escape? Flower arrangements including thorns for potential defense? It shows how the perception of threat can divide even those who are close; is it any wonder the question of what is and is not a threat is a major wedge issue today?
The story balances on the edge of tragedy and humor; Bender’s fondness for absurdity, in its everyday form rather than its more extreme avant garde form, more often tips it into humor, but it is that tipping that underlines the tragedy.
The story ends with an everyday occurrence perceived as threat, and leaves us wondering if they would perceive it that way if they weren’t already immersed in an atmosphere of threat. That’s of the many costs of pervasive violence, isn’t it: an air of suspicion, dividing friends, invading even a house of worship.
There is a horrific real-life connection to this story: ten days before the book was released, eleven congregants of the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh were murdered in an attack. No wonder Bender’s voice shook as she discussed the story in her interview.
The title story, “The New Order” is also a violence-adjacent story.
I felt powerful for the first time since the incident, as though I had to become a steel spike, completely hard and sharp; but I also trembled, for I simultaneously felt a plunging sense of loss. It was confusing to experience both of these at once. I realized then how much I admired my friend, even loved her, and that I had damaged something I could not see. Lori didn’t stand up and walk away; she changed the subject to the staleness of the carrot cake on our plates, but it felt as though something finished between us, and that we were now unknowable to one another, separate, an ostrich and a bear.
This story starts out back in the 1970s, when school shootings weren’t a social phenomenon yet, but just got described as some guy brought a gun into the cafeteria and shot two teachers and a student, for reasons unknown. The student, Sandra, seemed to be collateral damage, but it’s her seat in the cello section of the school orchestra that must now be filled.
For those who never paid attention to the intricacies of school music programs, seats for each instrument are doled out based on merit. In my school, anyone could challenge for a better seat at any time, giving a week’s notice or so. In this story, it seems the auditions are scheduled instead.
The story centers on our narrator and her friend, Lori, who are both preparing to audition. Their relationship, the conflict between competition and generosity, is the focus of the first two-thirds of the story, though it’s all infused with the reason for the audition: the empty chair where Sandra used to be. The title of the story, and the contemporary reader’s knowledge that school shootings are going to become a lot more common, also adds to the painful atmosphere.
What makes the story compelling is the jump to thirty years later when the two friends meet again for the first time since audition day, and the echoes of the past get updated.
In the interview quoted above, Bender said she wanted to write about a misunderstanding, and was inspired by Alice Munro’s short story “Fiction,” a story I haven’t read but now must. And again, the way Bender writes about, not the shooting, but one small slice of aftermath, is equally terrifying and impressive.
“This is Who You Are, ” the longest story in the book, is violence-adjacent on two fronts.
“What do you think they were thinking?” I asked.
“What are you talking about?”
“Right before the grenade. When they were in the corner.”
I didn’t know what I wanted from her. Diane was just fourteen, two years older than I, but all of her ballet training gave her a straight, proud carriage that she made her older than she was. She touched her tongue and picked a loose hair off it. Then she took a deep, crinkly breath.
“How to get out,” she said. “I bet that’s what they thought. Where can I go.”
It’s another story set in the 70s and is far more plotted than most of the others, which focus more on ideas.
It’s something of a partial coming-of-age story. Coming of age doesn’t happen all at once, after all; here, Celia is dealing with a couple of issues at the tender age of 14. One is the attack on a group of schoolgirls in Israel, an event she only knows about because it was brought up in her weekly Hebrew school session. The teacher has them write letters to the families of the murdered girls, which seems a little creepy to me but it’s presented as supportive, so I’ll go with that. Celia becomes a bit enmeshed with the girl she has chosen, Ilana, imagining she has survived after all:
I had a secret: in my locker, I stored some extra clothes for Ilana. An old sleep shirt and shorts and flip-flops. While I was somewhat embarrassed that I had done this, I was also a little proud, for I wanted to take some, any, action; I felt I was preparing for her arrival. When I had trouble focusing in class, I imagined her trudging up to the locker, perhaps at night, her clothes smelly from her long trip; I imagined her wandering through the junior high school to my locker, changing her clothes right then, and slipping on the shirt and shorts I had left for her. She would thank me; she would be grateful that someone believed she was not doomed but could get out of that classroom. I saw her letting out a breath when she had the right clothes, turning around in the warm, honeyed silence, trying to decide what to do next.
Celia is also dealing with a different kind of violence at her high school: a predator coach. In the 70s, it was the creepy guy in the trench coat everyone worried about, not the teacher who got girls to sit on his lap before he signed their late slips, the coach whose office was papered with glossy images of women in swimsuits and skimpy, sweaty athletic gear. One of Celia’s friends brings the violence more adjacent than Celia is comfortable with; in a special twist of irony, Celia mentions that Laila is not allowed to see R-rated movies because her mother thinks she’s too young to handle that kind of imagery, while she’s handling a lot more than that when she meets up with the coach at the beach.
A couple of the stories are overtly political. “Mrs. America” follows a senatorial candidate on a trail of attack. In her interview, Bender says Sarah Palin was the inspiration for this story; she wanted to explore how a decent could compartmentalize indecent actions. It’s my least favorite in the book; it seems over the top, and while that might be this current of absurdity that runs through many of the stories, instead of illuminating anything, it just seems like a hatchet job.
“The Good Mothers in the Parking Lot,” on the other hand, is shockingly familiar. A woman watches other mothers pick up their kids from a field trip and wonders which ones voted for the guy. Yeah, you know which one. She’s amazed that these women, friends, fellow bake sale veterans and committee co-chairs, could be the ones who did this, who changed everything.
They walk through the world as though it is still the world. Their innoence is a sort of violence and makes you want to look away.
I’d just read Danielle Evans’ The Office of Historical Corrections last week, so ringing in my head as I read this was its epigraph from James Baldwin: “It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.” And of course I was struck by how I’d written a blog post, four days after the election, with pretty much the same sentiment. My tirade took place in a supermarket, pushing my cart and watching other shoppers, wondering “Which ones?” The story – and it’s not really a story, since there’s no plot, it’s more of a scene – felt like a mirror. I was very grateful.
Other stories, like “The Department of Happiness and Reimbursement,” were also inspired by current events. Bender tells us she wrote this in response to non-disclosure agreements between women and their harassers, and wondered what it’s like to be part of the mechanism that arranges such things. Not the harasser or the victim, but the lawyers, and the accountants to figure out what category the expense goes into. It’s an interesting story, though I found the preamble a little long. Necessary, but too long.
The book closes with “The Cell Phones,” another story that’s more concept than a plot, but a great way to end. You know how it is, there’s always someone in the meeting, audience, or service who forgets to turn off their cell phone. This time, it’s a little more complicated than that. It’s really quite wonderful; Bender said she wanted to end on a hopeful note, and she did.
I very much enjoyed this book; I can’t help but wonder what kind of pandemic stories she might come up with. I think I might check out one of her novels, see what she does with more plot. Though I have to admit, I’m very fond of concept as a genre.