Sittenfeld’s foray into short fiction is winningly uncomfortable

Wednesday, May 2, 2018 - 4:37pm

In another life, Curtis Sittenfeld could have been a psychologist. Instead, she became a writer — and thank god she did. Sittenfeld is a keen, careful observer of human behavior and her first collection of short stories, “You Think It, I’ll Say It,” is aptly named. Sittenfeld says exactly what we didn’t even know we were thinking. As usual, she is a haunting master of language, fulfilling her promise to say the things we are thinking, used to think or will one day think. “Oh, our private habits, our private selves,” she writes. “How strange we all are, how full of feelings and essentially alone.” Or, “I am filled with gratitude at the astonishing fact of being married to someone I enjoy talking to, someone with whom I can’t imagine ever running out of things to say.” In her capable hands, the right combination of words renders even the most mundane moments touchingly profound. Less ambitious writers might steer clear of hot-button issues, but Sittenfeld has never been afraid to get political. Her 2008 novel “American Wife” is loosely based around the life of Laura Bush — a fictionalized Laura Bush, that is, whose concealed liberal politics and secret abortion derail both her marriage and her husband’s presidency.Clearly, Sittenfeld has no problem delving into the complex hypocrisies of modern life and she does so with gusto in “You Think It, I’ll Say It.” While many writers have taken up the task of examining conservative white Americans and their political and cultural predilections, Sittenfeld instead zeroes in on liberal white America, picking apart this slice of the population in a manner that is somehow both ruthless and kind.

Sittenfeld has a knack for nailing down the moments in a life that prove — whether as they are happening or much later — to have been important. These are not especially dramatic stories. Rather, they are tales of normal life and of the coincidences, surprises and sorrows of adulthood. A petty prenatal yoga class rivalry ends in lasting friendship. A college student’s hasty decision to lose her virginity to her best friend’s boyfriend becomes a distant memory (spoiler: she’s in love with her best guy friend, and they live happily ever after). A man must contend with his inappropriate feelings for his brother’s wife. A volunteer at a women’s shelter dramatically quits. Sittenfeld’s stories feel abidingly real and thus, the odd left turns and missed connections and moments of understanding carry a sort of gut-punching recognition that leaves the reader aching.

In the opening story, shrewdly titled “Gender Studies,” Sittenfeld manufactures the collision and rupture of two Americas: That of Nell, a women’s studies professor, and of Lucas, an airport shuttle driver who thinks that then-candidate Trump is “not afraid to speak his mind.” A lost driver’s license becomes the impetus for the two to meet again and share a drink, which Nell painfully describes as “an anthropological experience.” It’s both pleasurable and awkwardly disturbing to hear a specific type of NPR-loving liberal yuppie unabashedly reveal their foibles. Of Nell, Sittenfeld writes: “It’s not that she’s unaware that she’s an elitist asshole. She’s aware! She’s just powerless not to be one.”

These characters are so perfect in their ridiculousness. Everyone is a caricature of themselves at some point and capturing those moments is Sittenfeld’s gift. To have Nell recall a paper she wrote, called “Booty Call: Norms of Restricted and Unrestricted Sociosexuality in Hookup Culture,” is so gutsy! Or to make Lucas say mid-hookup: “Wow, you haven’t shaved lately, huh? Not a fan of the Brazilian?” Sittenfeld is always toeing the line between too much and just enough and it nearly always pays off.

Though the less explicitly political stories are both satisfying and beautifully written, it’s Sittenfeld’s brazen willingness to write about the current moment that stands out. A father texts his daughter on the night of the 2016 presidential election: “I hope you are not too disappointed. Progress sometimes happens in fits and starts. I love you.” This same man is later forced to confront a painful high school election in which he was handed the prefect election by the dean of his private boarding school after he ran against a female classmate and tied. The comparisons may be a bit heavy-handed, but it gets the job done. The personal is the political, argues Sittenfeld, but never exactly in the way you expect it to be.