Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Stories from the Tube by Matthew Sharpe

Like an English class assignment gone terribly right, Stories from the Tube uses images and words from TV commercials of the past as a jumping off point for a successful collection of stories that show, under a somewhat jaded veneer, Sharpe’s ability to perfectly render what is so special about relationships between people.

Some of the instances are jokey. In “In the Snowy Kingdom,” based on an antiperspirant commercial, a man suffers an episode of unknown origin at a society function. His wife rushes to his side and commits a betrayal in his eyes by drawing attention to him. The end of the story has them clinging together in the Artic, playing out a perverse version of the life they once had, where the later version is not any less enjoyable.

Sharpe also has a great grasp on failing relationships and ones that have ended. On the end of the friendship of two middle-aged women:

“Breaking up, if that’s what you call it, with your best friend, is not like breaking up with your husband. For long stretches you convince yourself it’s fine. You’re gently devastated. It’s the kid of devastation that doesn’t seem to take a chunk out of your life. Rather, it’s immediately part of your life. Blends right in. Strange but familiar. You can’t believe that it’s happening, but it’s happening, and it’s happened before, but you’re not sure when. You’re looking at it a lot, you’re nodding, yes, this old thing. Even as you’re being devastated you’re also recovering. You’re setting out, tireless traveler. It’s way bigger than you, but you’re holding to it, on y our skinny, brittle legs you’re carrying it along and while carrying you’re sniffing, touching, tasting, testing, sampling all the moods your devastation has to offer. And it turns out you’ve sort of trained yourself for this sort of thing, because nobody but the most seasoned observer notices how badly you’re hobbled by this experience that is so awful, that is so much deeper than humiliation.

Hazel did continue to see Dina at night when she was asleep. In her vivid dreams, she and Dina took frequent walks in the country, arm in arm. They saw things the real Dina and Hazel rarely saw: blue sky, green trees, red and yellow flowers, birds, rainbows.

“What kind of bird is that, Hazel?”
“I don’t know, I’ve never seen such a bird.”
“ How about that one?”
“Don’t know.”

My other favorite story is “Dr. Mom,” about a mother that takes Robitussin’s (or whichever cough medicine) irritatingly condesending copy about “the mothers of America” and their “kind of medical training” to its conclusion when her son gets sick.

Mothers and sons, grandmothers and grand kid, father, daughter, friends and husbands, most of Sharpe’s stories are about two people relating. The stories about parents and children capture the mutual distrust and curiosity between them without ever belaboring the point. His later books also focus on twos, though his minor characters don’t disappoint. He writes about women well and his observations about them through male characters seem effortlesslytrue. The stories he spins from commercials and their mini-narratives are twisted and true and much more entertaining than any Super Bowl budget buster.

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