A narcissistic worldview crops up time and again in Certain American States.
Catherine Lacey’s collection of short stories, Certain American States, begins with the meta- commentary heavy “Violations.” Opening with a pair of page-and-a-half long sentences in which the recently-jilted narrator waxes philosophical on whether or not it’s appropriate for his former partner – who just happens to be writer and whose most recent work just happens to feature overly-long sentences — to use the dissolution of their breakup as material for her work, Lacey quickly establishes the tone that will resonate throughout the remainder of the collection. “He never directly asked her not to write about him, as he estimated it would have caused more problems than it could have possibly assuaged, yet he felt unable to stop craving some sort of assurance that she would not write about him, or at least that she would not write about him in a way that was immediately recognizable…”
Here Lacey lays bare the fear of anyone who’s ever found themselves in a relationship with a writer: will any/all of this eventually become fodder for the creative process? Will I have to live each moment worried that it might come back to me, slightly fictionalized, and shared for the whole world to read? All of this fretting ultimately proves to be for naught, the narrator coming to the realization that everyone else seems to be more concerned, like himself, with themselves and how others may or may not perceive them. It’s a narcissistic worldview that crops up time and again in Certain American States. “Family Physics,” in particular, features a stereotypical narcissistic character so oblivious to the damage she causes those around her through her own self-centeredness that it becomes equal parts laughable and painful.
“Small Differences” explores a relationship that refuses to label itself as such and, in the process, becomes exactly that. Yet rather than taking a more predictable route, the story ends on a bit of a sour note that rings truer to real life than any fiction should. And that’s a good thing, something Lacey embraces fully as her characters alternate between deplorable, insufferable, incorrigible and largely lacking in any sort of self-awareness. It’s a darkly comedic approach to just how oblivious we all can become, living within the confines of our own troubles, setbacks and perceived slights. Were any of these characters to step outside themselves for just a moment, they could begin to resolve their self-inflicted issues (see also: “The Four Immeasurables and Twenty New Immeasurables,” “Please Take” and “Because You Have To.”)
Though one of the shortest in the collection, “Touching People” quickly and succinctly sums up Lacey’s purported worldview as a newlywed couple finds themselves held conversationally hostage by a widow so oblivious to their obvious discomfort that it pushes the limits of cringe-worthy comedy. From taking them to visit her late husband’s grave site to her insistent and inappropriate touching of the newlywed husband to his bride’s staring daggers, the situation elevates to the point of palpable discomfort only to end without resolution. This approach of picking up the action mid-scene and ending just as abruptly helps to leave these stories both open-ended and unsettling. Thoroughly enmeshed in the modern exploration of post-adolescent ennui that has cropped up in the work of Miranda July, Lena Dunham’s “Girls” and a host of other media, Certain American States makes a case for Lacey’s place near the top of the heap.