Jen Michalski is the author of The Tide King, Could You Be With Her Now, Close Encounters and From Here. She is the editor of the anthology City Sages: Baltimore and the founding editor of the literary quarterly jmww.
"In tandem, [the novellas] inform one another, their threads entangling, ultimately affording a more complete reading of the collection as a whole."
"Jen is an astonishingly sensitive writer."
"At the center of it all is Michalski’s masterful hand, at once compassionate and unflinching, possessed of extraordinary, aesthetic restraint. What she has given us are two lean bodies of incredible depth and ambition."
"Kudos to Michalski for giving me ALL THE EMOTIONS . . . Michalski will make you feel. And feeling . . . well, feeling anything feels good."
I doubt that anyone would argue that the two novellas of Could You Be With Her Now are not different stories. I mean, "I Can Make It to California Before It’s Time for Dinner" focuses on danger experienced by a mentally challenged fifteen year old, told in his own words. To the contrary, "May-September" omniscient tracks the romance that blooms between much-older woman and the young writer the much-older woman hires to work on her memoir blog.
Sure, these two stories have a relationship (compromised lives of one sort or another) and combine together into an interesting whole. However, there is an impressive range of writing ability between the two. They are crafted quite differently, function differently, and impact the reader in different ways.
A brief sample from each demonstrates the variance of the two prose styles. Contrast the following "I Can Make It to California Before It’s Time for Dinner" sample:
I watch the TV for my girlfriend Megan. She’s fourteen and I am fifteen and every day she’s on the show that I watch about her. She’s pretty and I wish we could hold hands and kiss. My brother Josh is seventeen and doesn’t play with me and doesn’t like Megan. His girlfriend is not on TV and she’s not pretty. Josh and his girlfriend call me retard and laugh. My name is Jimmy but I laugh too.
with the following "May-September" excerpt:
In the living room Sandra found the sheet music, Concerto in F by Gershwin. For years she had known most music by heart, but the last few years a note would fall out here, there, and she could not find it, would stop playing and begin again, only to drop a note someplace else. She began to forget entire songs altogether. Sometimes she could not reach quickly enough to the high notes or the lower notes, and her soles hurt when she pressed on the foot pedals. She had had enemies in her life, surely everyone did. But she hadn’t expected her hands or her piano to turn against her.
Obviously, the prose of "I Can Make It to California Before It’s Time for Dinner" is much simpler than that of "May-September." It has to be, since the former is told through the voice of mentally challenged Jimmy whereas the latter alternates between the heads of the older woman, Sandra, and the young writer, Alice. Regardless, I was impressed by the prose difference between these two novellas. For me, this was a significant part of the joy of reading the book.
Of course, variety in prose style is not the only aspect in play in these two pieces. As I mentioned, they operate differently, though both in ways that I enjoyed.
"I Can Make It to California Before It’s Time for Dinner" seems to function by contrasting the innocence of Jimmy's voice with what the reader understands about Jimmy's situation. Jimmy is a good kid, but there are bad things around him (or involving him) that he cannot understand:
I am on the deck now. I want to hug her goodbye. She pushes at me.
“Get away, you retard!” She screams and I put my hand on her mouth.
Megan bites my hand. I push her away. She is smaller than me and falls against the glass door. I feel bad and put my arms around her to pick her up. We are up half the way. She hits me in the chest and the face. I get mad like I get when Josh hits me and leaves marks. She hits me in the face again and it hurts bad. I put my hands on her neck and twist real hard, back and forth. She puts her hands on my hands but I am bigger. Her face turns all red and it’s kind of funny how red. She keeps moving and kicking and I try to stop her. We are up half the way when she falls asleep on me. She is so heavy I let her fall and then I wait for her to stop make-believing because people on TV are always doing make-believe. The way Josh fake sleeps until I go away.
We understand, but we know that Jimmy does not. This creates an amazing amount of tension despite Jimmy's pleasant and simple talking. We want to yell to Jimmy to protect him, but he couldn't understand us anyway.
On the other hand, "May-September" waves back and forth between Sandra and Alice, between their past and their present:
Oh Sandra, you’re never any fun. Georgi got in on the passenger side, pulled on the radio knob. Do you know the way to San Jose, I’ve been away so long. Come to Bali without Jack. We can do girl stuff.
Alice met Sandra by the closet. She moved so quickly, from couch to closet, that Sandra dropped the coat.
I’ve got it. Alice threw it onto the couch and then put her arms around Sandra.
Sandra leaned over and cupped Georgi’s right cheek in her left hand, brushed her left cheek with her lips. She could smell Georgi’s hair, her breath.
Sandra, stop. Georgi pushed at her.
Sandra stood stiffly, feeling Alice against her.
The resulting effect is as complex as Sandra's and Alice's emotion. Through that slipping between the two lovers, and between their situation and their history, what they feel and how they act against it, the reader gets closer to experiencing life as Sandra and Alice.
Really, I am not sure which story I prefer. "I Can Make It to California Before It’s Time for Dinner" crafts Jimmy's voice marvelously and brings me to the edge of my chair. However, though "May-September" doesn't have the same simple charm, the more sophisticated story is captivating. I guess I'll just have to like Could You Be With Her Now as a whole and not worry which novella is better.