by Emily Fridlund
Published 2017 by Sarabande Books
$16.95 paperback ISBN 978-1946448057
By Noah Sanders
Emily Fridlund’s new book of short stories—Catapult—plays in the sandbox of transition. Her characters are mired in the midway point between what’s occurred and what happens next, attempting (and mostly failing) to try and suss out just how to take that next step. Sometimes it’s puberty, sometimes it’s the jagged end of a relationship that’s gone on just a few years too long, regardless, her characters swim in the cloudy waters between two points, reaching out for one shore, while the other slowly fades behind them.
Fridlund writes about transitions—emotional, physical, even geographical—but more so about the state of transition. Her characters seem stuck, mired in the midst of a life change but unwilling or unable to seal the deal, to move forward. The story “Catapult” starts with this line from a 14-year old girl halfway between puberty and not, “That summer I was reading vampire books, so when Noah said no to sex, I let myself pretend that’s what he was.” The story, about that murky grey area between pure childhood and the onset of adolescence, follows its two leads over a summer spent between kid-like ambitions—time travel, building a raft—and unfulfilled sexual desire. Its main character, a girl who’s abandoned her friend group and escaped what may be a troubling family situation, is cresting into pubescence, but still clutching the simpler ideas of both childhood and faith. She and Noah, a devout Christian struggling with the concepts of science, lie in bed entirely naked, not touching, just talking, exploring ideas instead of their own physicality. It is a lovely, heart-breaking portrayal of that last moment when we mourn the childhood slipping through our grasp, but still yearn for whatever it is the future might hold.
Fridlund is particularly interested in the grey areas between moments. Her stories take place in borderlands between suburbs and the wild, and feature characters held back by their pasts but stumbling inevitably towards the future. In “One You Run From. The Other You Fight” a long-term couple—Nora and Sage—skeptical of the normalized structures of relationships (babies, marriage, etc.) skirt from one event to another, mocking the worlds they’ve avoided so far. The author adeptly portrays a relationship stretched too far, the passion long gone, but the fear of moving on, too much for either to participant to grasp. Only when they arrive at a party with no host in a strange hinterland somewhere between the boxy housing of suburban living and the wilderness that’s been beat back, are they able to see where they’ve come from and potentially where they are going. It is in these boondocks—emotional or otherwise—where the true face of Fridlund’s characters claw their way to the surface.
Each of Fridlund’s stories reads like a novel compressed and though it does work—both “Catapult” and “Lock Jaw” are stellar pieces—occasionally the author reaches for too much. It may be backstory or character motivation or just plot points scattered along the way, but there is an abundance in many stories that reads as clutter rather than atmosphere. Too many narrative threads, too many one-off plot additions shoot out into the darkness, never to be seen again.
Even when Fridlund’s stories overextend, her writing is always spot on. She describes a mosquito’s face as, “like an important utensil”; an elderly dog is “only slightly more animated than an eroded boulder.” Fridlund’s writing—deft and observant, pockmarked with little bursts of joyful description—will pull you forward, even if the outcome isn’t always as satisfying as it might be.