Lazarin creates characters who feel fully realized.
Writing realistic fiction requires a certain finesse few authors manage to execute effectively. As with the best actors, we believe them to be the characters they are inhabiting, despite knowing otherwise. In other words, we see real human qualities that in lesser hands are forsaken in favor of overblown caricatures or cringe-inducing cliches. Adding to the difficulty of creating believability within a fictional—albeit hyper-realistic—setting is the ever-looming threat of boredom. Without much in the way of plot to move the action along, it’s hard to maintain interest. Our daily lives are dull enough with their long periods of narrative stasis; we don’t need to spend time with fictional characters leading equally dull existences.
And yet, it’s the ability to transcend these fictional characters’ un-reality that makes a well-written narrative, regardless of the plot, so compelling. With her debut short story collection, Back Talk, Danielle Lazarin manages to draw the reader into her characters despite an overwhelming lack of major plot points. This isn’t to say nothing happens, but rather what does happen does so in a manner so evocative of real life that readers begin to feel as though they know the characters on a more personal level. It’s like hearing word of a friend who has long-since fallen off the radar; you’re granted a look into what they might be up to now. And more often than not, what they are up to is nothing flashy or grandiose, but rather eminently relatable and somewhat mundane.
In these short works, Lazarin creates characters who feel fully realized within only a handful of pages, if that. Reading each of these short stories, it’s hard not to feel a personal knowledge of any or all of the characters facing a series of minor existential crises. Whether it’s inter-family drama caused by drastically different personalities attempting to coexist peacefully, crumbling marriages or simply navigating the treacherous waters of adolescence and early adulthood, Lazarin’s characters come across as lived in to the point of being the reader’s own flesh-and-blood neighbors and family.
Both “Spider Legs” and “Second-Chance Family” take this notion to the extreme, featuring the same family, albeit years apart and rendered from two very different narrative perspectives. It’s only after readers begin recognizing the character traits and situations that they will make the connection, much as if they had found a mutual acquaintance in real life. These characters in particular prove so fascinating that one hopes Lazarin’s next work will be a novel dealing with this Tenenbaums-esque family.
Throughout, Lazarin focuses on characters who are searching for something greater than what they’ve settled for: an imagined life, either with a different partner or electing to have children (“Floor Plans,” “American Men in Paris I Did Not Love”); the what-ifs afforded by death and divorce (“Hide and Seek,” “The Holographic Soul”) or questioning whether or not we are the ones preventing us from seeing the truth and finally being free to be happy (“Lovers’ Lookout,” “Looking for a Thief”). Never flashy or aiming for the easy narrative arc, Lazarin’s approach to storytelling unfolds much like real life in that sometimes things don’t end happily and, more often than not, nothing happens at all.
Back Talk is full of little moments and first-person narrators who manage to put into words the thoughts, feelings and unspoken emotions each of us experience on a daily basis, whether it’s trying and failing to relate with family, friends or someone new, finding that the person you thought was “the one” might not be or that the grass is not always greener on the other side. “Floor Plan,” in particular, proves this latter idea in devastatingly small ways. For a first collection, Back Talk is a remarkable achievement of contemporary fiction. Reaching the final page, the reader is left wanting more. Here’s hoping Lazarin continues to deliver on the promise shown here.