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Inventing Victor
ISBN: 0887483976
By Jen Bannan
Review by: Justine Dymond

5/15/04

Jen Bannan’s first collection of stories, Inventing Victor, is seductively diverse in scope and character, and yet all the stories are held together by Bannan’s voice, at turns edgy, satirical, and lyrical, but always perfectly pitched.

The collection opens with “La Perche,” a sharp send-up of our binge-and-purge culture—literally. The narrator and her partner have just opened a new upscale Miami restaurant with a gimmick to top all gimmicks: a vomitorium. “People came from all over the country. All over the world. Soon, the everyday bulimic stayed at home. Only the glamorous ones came, surrounded by their entourage of dancers and camera people.” From this outrageous, no-holds-barred beginning, the collection moves into quieter and yet more disturbing territory. In “We Said Mother,” a short short, a mother’s grown children visit her on her seventieth birthday, patronizing and smug with their professionally successful lives. Though the story is narrated in the plural “we” of the children, their condescension quickly loses the reader’s sympathy. The mother, by contrast, endears herself to us with her eccentricity, her hoop dress, her menagerie of birds. Bannan’s technical virtuosity is stunning here, having chosen just the right tone and angle of vision that reflects back the boorishness of the narrating “we” and moves the story to its unsettling close.

Perhaps “unsettling” is the one word that captures the stories as a whole. It would be very tempting to read this collection in one fell swoop, but you wouldn’t want to. The stories linger after the final lines and I found myself hours or even days later haunted by a character’s predicament and a story’s mood. To move too quickly into the next story could be jarring. Take, for example, “B and B,” which is a tour-de-force and the longest story in the collection. A young, middle-class white couple from Pittsburgh, where their liberal pride doesn’t compensate for “their disappointment at failing to befriend blacks in their neighborhood,” take a vacation at Virginia Beach. At their bed and breakfast they meet Simone and Stan, a black couple, and with hyper self-consciousness attach themselves to this pair like eager puppies. Catherine and John are embarrassingly solicitous and gleeful at their success. It’s hard not to squirm at the blunt honesty of this story in its depiction of racial consciousness and white liberal guilt. And it would be easy to satire the white couple in their officiousness, but Bannan takes a more interesting path, one in which Catherine’s awkwardness becomes a catalyst for self-reflection. Catherine:

realized that she also had assumed earlier that Stan and Simone had some connection to the travails of the inner city—that Simone would have to answer the phone during one of her political discussions to take in the news of a drive-by near her cousin’s house in the projects … only to return to the continued discussions with Stan and their political elite friends, discussions that took place over the labeling of important newsletters or the planning of African American solidarity events.

And it was ridiculous to imagine that anyone would have such a representative life. Yet this was a burden she had fully expected Stan and Simone to take on, while she went about her easy, non-political life.

Other stories also offer us this same reflective depth, grounded in the particular, that resonates beyond individual circumstance. The title story, “Inventing Victor,” introduces us to Dacia, a young Cuban-American girl who feels compelled to invent a boyfriend to keep up with her peers. In “The Details of Women,” when a former girlfriend befriends his wife, a man re-considers the suburban conformity of his current life in contrast to this former relationship with a heroin addict during the heady days of the student revolution in Paris. An American woman visits her cyber-boyfriend in Russia for the first time in “Comfort Isn’t Everything” and discovers that national and cultural tendencies are not so easily divorced from individual personality. In “Fear of Heaven,” a gay man falls in love with a closeted married man who married specifically to have children and adores his little girl. The narrator is disturbed by his lover’s deception and yet aches for the “ideal of family” that seems just out of reach.

Most devastatingly, the final story of the collection, “The Bruise of Jupiter,” takes us into the uncompromising heartache of a woman trying to move on from loss. Outcast from her Brooklyn Hassidic community, which refused to recognize the abuse she suffered at the hands of her husband, Leah has also lost her children as a result of her own abusive behavior, including a baby taken from her at birth. While discovering the small freedoms of life outside the “community,” Leah becomes pregnant again. “She wanted to touch that baby skin, smell that baby hair. She wanted another chance.” Faced with the probability that this baby will also be taken from her, Leah must confront her past failure as a parent. As with all the stories, Bannan does not offer easy answers, and often closes these narratives with a bittersweet ambiguity that resonates beyond the page.

This is the stuff of Literature.




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