There are two kinds of crossover success. There is the artist who brings something impressive in their first metier that is absent from their second choice (think Elvis’ soulful hunkitude in his gospel records); then there is the all-around talent whose strengths are of such a nature that they transcend boundaries (the novelist Paul Auster’s forays into film come to mind).
Neil LaBute falls into neither category, which is what makes reading his first collection of short stories such a dreadfully grueling affair. In many cases, “stories” is all too generous a name for the few scanty pages of exposition and (sometimes) dialogue presented there. Yet the title of this smallish hardback declares that what we are about to read are, in fact, stories.
While in general I hold the traditional introduction-rising-action-climax-falling-action structure to be the most soundly written and most rewarding to read stories, it’s not a slavish devotion to this principle that blinds me to otherwise good qualities in LaBute’s prose. There are throughout, only a few glimpses of some good writing, a line here or there, but the brevity of pieces are what often hinders them from being any good at all. Entitled “Wait,” a three page mental ramble of a man waiting for a woman to arrive, a woman hired to urinate on him, is hardly more than a sketch of a moment that would perhaps be illuminating in a bigger picture.
And the payoff of the story, the pissing, is emblematic of LaBute’s writing as a whole. I enjoyed his debut film, In the Company of Men, not so much for the plot, which was fairly boilerplate dick measuring, but for the crispness of LaBute’s hateful characters’ dialogue. When the end’s twist is revealed, I was genuinely surprised, enough so that I watched the film a second time to see how the new information illuminated a certain character’s actions.
It didn’t. The twist, on a second viewing, is no more than an O’Henry trick, and even then I feel I’m giving it undue credit. It’s a trick that turns up in more than one of his films and in nearly all of his stories. If I haven’t dissuaded you from reading this collection already, then I’m going to indulge in spoiling some of LaBute’s revelations for sake of illustration.
The pissing in the above mentioned “Wait” shares space with how picking up a prostitute in “Ravishing” turns into making a snuff film. The man a woman knowingly seduces turns out to be her long lost father in “Maraschino.” The person a man’s wife caught him being blown by isn’t the neighbor’s wife, but the husband in “Time Share,” a fact revealed after pages of back and forth dialogue dance around this fact. In “Layover,” the man who flirts and almost picks up a young woman in an airport turns out to be married with kids.
Over and over again there’s a last page or last paragraph revelation that’s supposed to make us reevaluate everything we’ve just read, but really, there’s nothing to reevaluate.
The sameness doesn’t end there. LaBute has this annoying prose style I’ve seen before in other playwrights who dabble in prose. It’s the story told in all dialogue that would work on stage where the information-pushing lines are expected to do feels natural, while on the page it creaks awkwardly. “I mean, we’ve done this before,” a character informs us, putting us in the know about she and her illicit lover. “You know? Done it and I didn’t think twice about it, about what it all meant or how he might feel.”
Listen in on these several opening paragraphs to see what I mean about sameness writ even larger.
Look, I’m not perfect. That’s the important thing here, that you know that, before we begin. I am not perfect. Not even close. In fact, I’m barely average, if anything.
It was good to see him again. Really, it was. He hadn’t actually changed a lot; I mean, not that much. A little, I guess, but I spotted him immediately. Almost, anyway.
He looks at the tears in her eyes and thinks twice about proceeding. Well, not twice, really, not like in the sense that he isn’t going to go through with it — the breakup I mean — but imagines that they can maybe wait for a moment. Get their bearings. Regroup.
Wait. Wait, I tell myself. No need to rush. Wait for it. If I can. I will if I can. I’m trying. I swear, I’m trying, but the thought of her. It’s hard. So hard. So I close my eyes. Concentrate.
Look at Her:
Look at her. Seriously, look. There she is, over there. Unbelievable, right? I mean, I can’t take my eyes off her. Really, I can’t.
Some Do It Naturally:
Wait a second, I want you to hear this. Seriously, listen. Those two, over there. Yeah, I know it’s eavesdropping, I know that, but you have to catch this; listen. It’s not wrong, come on, it’s not illegal or anything, it’s just not that nice. Granted. Still, I can’t help myself. Listen.
It’s like each story features the same characters, though enough background frippery is added so we’re assured that the snuff film maker is not the married man in the suburbs who is not the Hollywood actor. Yet, not one character in the whole collection speaks, thinks, or acts in a manner enough to make distinct any real difference. And as each story moves as quickly as it can to its “shock” at the end, many callous cruelties and inhumanities are perpetrated in the course of the book’s 221 pages, so much so that it's tiring work reading it all.
What’s the problem with this collection is that LaBute’s work is better in staged settings. Instances are separated by the business of living, of lurching from one minor tragedy to the next. This gives the world a hint of reality and relief from the oppressiveness that makes this collection.
Also, when writing a play or film, as a writer, more effort is put into making characters opposed to each other, in giving them qualities that individuate them. Apparently no effort to do such a thing took place during the penning of these short bits. It wouldn’t hurt also if LaBute was capable of seeing the world in more than black and white terms, the horrible people who take advantage, and the stupid people of whom advantage is taken. He really doesn’t seem to make distinctions of grade or quality. Everyone is the same one of two possibilities.
If you are the writer of this book, you fall in class one. If you are the buyer, then cheer up, sap; it was only twenty-two bucks of your money. Quit your bitching. Suck it up. Don’t be such a baby. Seriously, listen.