by Adam Cogbill
Anyone who’s read a few reviews of small press books has probably observed that these reviews tend to cheerlead. I don’t say this by way of apology; in two paragraphs I fully intend to begin cheering for Lori Baker’s new collection of short fiction, and I don’t feel at all bad about it. But because Crash & Tell is about imagination, this seems as good a place as any to make a related observation: increasingly, it seems imagination is the particular mission of small press fiction. I mean imagination here as the conception of new logics, unconsidered systems of cause-and-effect, embracing bewilderment. This has very little to do with the fantastic—a new vampire novel, for example, quite possibly only conceives in its rearrangement of old ideas. In small press fiction, we often find characters whose modes of thought, habits, beliefs, and fears are strange to us, or which are made strange to us by the writer’s description of them. It’s easy to write these stories off as “weird,” to move on from them quickly, to think of them as irrelevant to our own personal realities.
Which is exactly why they need cheerleaders. Stories, after all, do not contain inherent value—values are assigned. If we can be convinced, even for only a moment, to investigate why someone or something strikes us as weird, then we stand a better chance of understanding a deficiency in our own conception of reality. Imagination is the understanding that our experience is not all-inclusive or representative of anything beyond itself. It is accepting that effects exist even if we cannot understand the causes. Ultimately, it’s magic, and as long as small presses are willing to publish books dedicated to magic, they not only deserve, but need, cheerleaders.
And there’s certainly magic in Lori Baker’s new collection of short fiction, Crash & Tell. In all six of these stories, characters are surrounded by the illusion and mystery that stems from the misunderstandings, miscommunications, and artifice inherent in our relationships and histories. That Robert Coover has contributed a blurb to the book’s back cover seems appropriate; readers may well be reminded of “The Babysitter,” or the more recent “Going for a Beer.” As in Coover’s work, even when Crash & Tell draws attention to the artifice of its characters’ lives, it does so with humanity and grace; Baker is a versatile storyteller capable of patient observation, urgent plot, the surreal and dreamlike, and dry, well-timed, humor. Whether her subject is Jane Goodall, an entire family obsessed with photography and their past, or a woman simulating depression for cash, Baker’s fiction investigates the insufficiency of our personal narratives to the navigation of our relationships.
Crash & Tell’s stories typically revolve around a conflict created by the crashing together of lives. The book’s titular story even begins with a car accident that Lenny causes intentionally: “he[‘d] been nosing the big red Continental around town like a fifty-thousand-dollar penis, looking for likely and attractive ladies to poke…he[‘d] gotten three phone numbers that way.” After the accident, Virginia, who Baker describes as “neither the assertive type nor the amorous type nor the humorous type nor the athletic type,” finds herself involved in a relationship from which she can’t seem to extricate herself. Initially, she seems to see Lenny as a way to escape loneliness; their first date is a “big deal,” as Viriginia, “hasn’t been out on a date in years.” Lenny’s presence becomes increasingly strange and threatening, but Virginia is too shy, eager to please, and oblivious to Lenny’s clearly exploitive behavior to disentangle herself. Their “romance” might be best characterized by Lenny’s prodigious use of “dolly” (53 times in nearly as many lines of dialogue), a pet name representative of his image of Virginia. Virginia’s inability to communicate what she wants to Lenny is also reflected in her inability to explain the situation to her friend Lorraine, who she “can’t stand to disillusion,” and who “approves” of the situation and believes it’s “wonderful” that Virginia has found someone. Even the reader is subject to limited knowledge of characters’ intentions; we can only guess, at the end of “Crash & Tell,” at the (plausibly dark) motivations of John Lacey, who arrives ostensibly in pursuit of Lenny, but who takes a disturbing interest in Virginia as well.
The book’s opening story, “Still Life,” is told under markedly different constraints than “Crash & Tell.” If the latter is part crime-thriller, the former seems to exist in a surreal, slightly twisted version of our world that brings to mind the short fiction of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Stephen Milhauser. The story is told from the collective perspective of a family of photographers. Photography is more than an occupation for them; it’s a defining identity. Upon discovering that their ancestors were also photographers “[their] utmost hopes were realized: [they] were photographers; [they] had always been photographer; [they] would always be photographers.” Each family member adopts “a single progenitor as a model, or reference point” for his or her artistic pursuits. The story turns when Louise begins reproducing versions of an “infamous” and “scandal-besmirched” ancestor’s works. She loses herself entirely in her new identity, and her projects, such as an illusion of herself on her deathbed, distance her further and further from her relatives. “Still Life” is an exploration of art and obsession, but also of how human beings become obscure to each other through “words, which are themselves nothing more than representations, insubstantial as a scattering of moths.”
At the end of “Still Life,” the narrator is forced to “imagine a life for [Louise],” a process that seems strikingly similar to the way writers invent and develop their characters. But it is also, as Baker shows us, the process through which real people form relationships. It is through our imagination of others’ lives that we form conclusions—often inadequate or inaccurate—about them, and it is through the shortcomings of our imaginations that we misunderstand and mistreat each other. Crash & Tell is imagination with purpose; this is a collection of short stories that encourages us to conceive more richly of the lives of even those who we meet in passing.