It Had Been Planned and There Were Guides
Jessica Lee Richardson
[FC2 at The University of Alabama Press, 2015. 217 Pages. $16.95]
Reviewed by RS Deeren
Remember when you were very young and you ran down from the top of a hill, picking up speed as you went, summer wind smacking you in the face, stretching your legs over patches of crab grass, dandelions, the hungry jaws of a great white shark? Remember the fear and uncertainty that overtook you when you got halfway down and realized that you were no longer in control of your legs and that your decent was more a crashing lesson in gravity than a childhood game? Remember the sudden stop at the bottom and the momentary mess of confusion that came from toppling into a heap where attempting to understand the concepts of up and down was laughable? Remember coming to your senses, giddy, looking back up the hill and wanting to do it all over again? Jessica Lee Richardson remembers and in her debut short story collection, It Had Been Planned and There Were Guides, she introduces her readers to characters at varying levels of descension and ascension, all embarked on their own journeys through the dark. Knowing from the onset that they won’t know where they are at times, but trusting that there will be something, anything, at the end of their walk.
Richardson doesn’t keep this undulating feeling for just her characters, though. Thanks to ambitious experimentation in storytelling, and a fresh take on how to guide her readers through her collection, Richardson gives a view of the mountainside that we’re about to run down (or more accurately, that she’s about to push us down). Richardson divides her book into two halves: Descent and Ascent. At the “bottom” of the collection, readers tumble across an “(impasse),” gather what’s fallen out of their pockets and any teeth that might have popped out in the fall, refocus in a “(clearing),” then begin back up the mountain.
The first half, Descent, starts with “call me silk” where the narrator, thanks to a spiked cup of tea from an untrustworthy older couple, sets out on a life of thrill-seeking in the name of fear-and-understanding-reclamation. Here, the narrator says to us:
At the lowest place there is nothing to lose anymore. No accusation can swing by that hasn’t already arrowed into your face. There’s freedom in that. In freedom there’s a way back up. Of course, I didn’t know that yet, not fully.
To start a collection with a narrator telling the reader that they will fall fast and fall hard along with the lives in the ensuing stories, is a brilliant primer for the bedlam that comes from falling. But don’t worry, there are guides in this collection to tell you that the way, though violent and dark, is tested and proven. All you have to do as a reader, is jump.
Many of Richardson’s stories deal with being lost. However, it’s not that the lives that populate these stories flounder in a dark room, trying to find the light switch because, many times, they are the ones who turned out the lights in the first place. Take the opening line in “we win:” “Well and I thought, what kind of life would this be, really, if we must live the whole bloody mess of it without being able to enter the mouth of the beast?” Here, a team of scientists toil to create a suit that allows the wearer to live their daily life while simultaneously allowing them to experience the jaws of a shark on a whim. The goal is to descend into the dark unknown and own it. Years of beta testing, and a few bloody failures later, the suit becomes a permanent second skin and what started as a lark for these characters has ended in a remapping of humanity once the lights come on again.
In “haute culture,” the narrator, before the story starts, had decided that she wanted to see what work as a porn star was like. She ventured down an unknown path and, getting to its end, wanted to retrace her steps, not wanting to stay where she had wandered. The story begins with curiosity, an inherently willing desire to explore, and ends with the narrator meeting a warning sign on the side of the trail, seeing someone who is lost, wondering how they got the where they are.
When Richardson gets us to the bottom, when we reach the “(impasse),” the lives of these stories have tripped over, doubled-back, wandered purposefully into the dark so often and so confidently, that the broken lines, and even the broken words, of the dual stories of “no, go” and “no, go, continued,” resemble the detritus strew about the ground after a glorious fall.
Pick it all up. Climb.
During the Ascent, the stories take on an, of course, rising, tone, one of growing, of coming to understandings or, at the very least, contentment in discomfort. From the reader’s perspective, it as if Richardson knows that the audience is discombobulated from their descent and a haze of dizziness and absurdity drifts throughout these later stories. In “holy property,” Little Abbot dreams of his discarded fruit seeds sprouting, growing, and overtaking the yard of Old Hattie who, in her world view, just wants kids to stay off her lawn. She has a rifle to help her. Abbot has a peach stone to counter. When the two meet, tension grows into violence which grows into a mutual respect felt between the characters.
In this back half of her collection, Richardson’s characters have gained their bearings, know that they are still lost, and attempt to follow the trails back to the source. “our acts together” finds a grandson helping his grandmother organize books of political law at first by means of the light spectrum. The two dive into a history of American law and from the bottom, up, try to organize the information. When the project becomes too big, they move to a storage unit. When the colors fail, they try pictures. When the pictures fail, the narrator states, “Let’s start over again,” and they do. This is what happens after you know you’ve gotten yourself turned around. You try to figure out the best way home. You’re going to fail on your way and Richardson knows it and wants it for her readers.
Falling is losing oneself. Rising, however, isn’t so much being found as it is the process of understanding being lost. Don’t worry, Richardson’s collection says, you’re going to be fine, but it’s still going turn you around. That’s the point. It Had Been Planned and There Were Guides is a victory of a debut. It doesn’t ease you into a new literary voice, it throws you down into and roughs you up a bit. It’s life both in the dark and in blinding light. Recommended for anyone who knows words.
RS Deeren is the 2016 Union League Club of Chicago Library’s Writer in Residence and a 2015 Luminarts Foundation Creative Writing Fellow. His fiction, nonfiction, and poetry appears in Midwestern Gothic, The Legendary, BartlebySnopes, The Chicago Center for Literature and Photography’s anthology The View from Here, Cardinal Sins, and elsewhere. He is a second year MFA Fiction candidate and also a Graduate Teaching Assistant for Columbia College Chicago and The College of Lake County. He’s a founding member of the Chicago writers group, Submittable Sundays, which focuses on sustaining a writing community outside of academia. Before moving to Chicago, RS lived in the rural Thumb Region of Michigan where he worked odd jobs as a line cook, a landscaper, a banker, and a lumberjack. Home is still the woods for him but he’s glad to be living and working on his craft in the blue-collar-arts world of Chicago. Find out more or drop a line at rsdeeren.com and on Twitter @RSDeeren.
Image credit: pen.org