The Place For The Things

Holly Goddard Jones’ Girl Trouble

Holly Goddard Jones is the best short fiction writer you’ve never read.

I admit that this is an assertion I am completely unqualified to make. I am not well-read in the world of modern literary fiction, and I have little insight into how familiar Jones is to those who are. However, there are some things one simply senses to be true, and, after reading Jones’ 2009 collection Girl Trouble, I sense to be true this: Holly Goddard Jones is the best short fiction writer you’ve never read.

I thought of all of that, but I kissed her anyway–only because I could.

Girl Trouble opens with the Faulkner quote “Women are never virgins.” The inclusion of this quote proves increasingly apt throughout the book via one of its major themes: the pervading presence of male sexuality and the suffering it wreaks. The book is dripping with this decidedly heterosexual male version of sexuality. The men are either slaves to it or terrified of it; the women resigned to it or furious at it. Male characters, particularly, in Girl Trouble are portrayed with striking insight. (I’ve never been a believer in the alleged inability of fiction writers to convincingly cross gender lines, and there is probably no better disproof of this maxim than Girl Trouble.) Sex is just THERE, constantly, in the minds of these men, rarely remarkable but never absent. It is the source and the solution to most, but by no means all, of their suffering and at least a partial driver of virtually all male action taken. Conversely, women in Girl Trouble are equally aware of male sexuality, primarily as a destructive force. Though a few seek it out, most experience it, directly or indirectly, as a vehicle for suffering. In some sense this is not so different from the men: the collection convincingly portrays sex as an enormous distributor and creator of tragedy, one which men foolishly run towards and which women hopelessly run from.

…sometime between the knock and now, an idea had kindled, and he was too young and stupid to realize that actions like the one he was contemplating had consequences, that the excitement of this moment–the desire he was feeling, large and powerful and teenaged–could die out if he just gave it a few minutes. A few damned minutes, was all.

Rape, if it isn’t yet obvious, plays a lead here, and just-barely-not-rape has a supporting role, too. These are stories about the raped, the raped’s family, the rapists, the rapists’ families, and the people who just should have known better. (A less imaginative title might have been “Sex and its Terrible Consequences.”) Such a singular focus would be an indictment in a lesser collection, but what Jones has done is an achievement. The collection coheres surprisingly well without even seeming to be trying. The stories give, at first, no indication of being anything other than unrelated vignettes about the suffering of various members of the same small (fictitious) town of Roma, Kentucky. It is only when the reader squints that the thematic lines become visible. “Rape,” the word itself, is barely used, and sometimes the act is only barely present in the stories themselves. As in the real word, rape springs up out of nowhere, in ways that are both completely surprising but also utterly not. (In two of the rape-centric stories, the act itself was in the distant past. Another story is centered on a rape that is only ever barely described by an incidental character.)

Ellen looked at Ray’s living room: the big-screen TV with the image that warped on one side; the coffee table littered with ashtrays and an old HBO guide and a half-dozen glasses, different sizes, all crusted with the remains of milk or juice or beer. This wasn’t a home; it was a hotel room.

The inclusion of the Faulkner quote is telling in another way, too. Sexuality may be the major source of suffering in Roma, but poverty and a peculiarly Southern sense of isolation both make their presence felt throughout. The smallness of the town creates not a close community but instead a claustrophobic one. Everyone knows everyone else and everyone mostly hates everyone else, too. Everyone is in on everything and everyone is resigned to do almost nothing about it.

Had he thought there was nothing left to lose? Because there was, Ben knew now. There was self-respect. There was hope.

Girl Trouble‘s central focus on sexual suffering in a limited environment frees it from many of the frustrations of contemporary short fiction collections. The women-centered stories have a frustration with all-permeating male sexuality which recalls similar pieces by Lorrie Moore and Miranda July, but with neither author’s penchant for wordplay and humor. The pieces do not drag with existential angst or vagueness. Although many types of suffering are present, they are alike in their precision. Characters are haunted by a definite thing, a definite moment (or collection of moments) that went horribly wrong. Regret is for many of these characters almost tangible, a person or place or time that should have been destroyed.

Simultaneously, however, the collection manifestly avoids sentimentalizing or moralizing treatments. Girl Trouble focuses on the suffering and reality of the experiences of its characters. These stories play out as direct excerpts from people’s lives, with the characters, their thoughts and immediate experiences presented as it is experienced, and no more. Such a presentation relies almost entirely on empathetic characters to carry the weight of immersing the reader, and indeed Jones excels at this. Characters are at once completely ordinary and distinctly memorable. They are people you almost know, might even be friends with, but with their lives and thoughts laid bare in a way that no one could ever see from outside. You are precisely *in* these characters, but not at all *with* them.

That was the image I couldn’t shake: Lavinia, led onstage by her torturers, robbed of her tongue and her hands. The outrageousness of it. The cruelty.

Holly Goddard Jones is the best short fiction writer you’ve never read.