Originally from Cincinnati, Julie Innis now lives in New York. Her writing has appeared in Post Road, Pindeldyboz, Gargoyle, and The Long Story, among others. She holds a Master’s in English Literature from Ohio University and is currently on staff at One Story as a reader.
"I loved this book. You will too. Pour yourself a cold drink, find a comfortable chair, and start digging in.”
I cannot write a short story to save my life. Someone screwed me up somewhere along the way, either in high school English or college lit, or perhaps I should blame reality television or NPR news, or maybe it's just a personality flaw – I am, after all, a consummate neurotic, secure enough, at least, to admit that I'm often uncomfortable in my own skin. Whatever the case, I suffer under the illusion that short fictions convey deep meanings, that they wrap tough little nuggets of truth in sweet story, that they communicate, that they do something.
Of course, this could be nothing more than a sign o' the times, as we seem to think reading good for us the way eating spinach or running 5ks are, or can be. When I taught middle school Humanities, as I did for four years, I needed to prove via tests and five-paragraph essays that my students could dissect, summarize, and interpret a short piece of fiction. (No one really cared if they actually enjoyed reading.) “Everything is quantifiable,” my wife told me the other day, echoing the sentiments of educators across the country. But she teaches environmentalism and botany, where it's clear, isn't it, if a child can identify the parts of plant? How do we know if a kid 'got' a story?
Well, I'll tell you what I got: a deep and abiding love of short fiction, along with a complex about writing it, a self-conciousness so deep, a set of approaches and questions – What's my story's theme? Who's the protagonist and how can I show things about him or her? – that strikes me as entirely wrong, all work and no play, all head and no heart.
Julie Innis to the rescue! In an interview on Necessary Fiction, Innis said:
I think, and I say this as a former English teacher of fourteen years, one of the worst things to happen to “literature” is the demand from readers for analysis at the expense of empathy. When we teach young readers to hunt for clues to character, specific lines or gestures that are meant to reveal some sort of “deeper meaning,” I think we’ve pretty much fucked the whole thing up.
Amen to that, sister.
And now here she is, swooping down with her first collection of stories Three Squares a Day with Occasional Torture like a literary Avenger. I first encountered Innis's fiction at a reading in Manhattan, the attentive audience decked out in dark jeans and well-pressed button-ups, faces freshly shaved or tastefully made-up. Innis did everything right, I thought. She took the stage with seriousness and poise, and then with egergy and engaging eye-contact read a story that featured the word 'poontang,' not once, but six times, if you count the variations 'poon' and 'tang,' as in, 'Got the taste for tang when he was in Nam.'
“Do,” the story's called, as in dojo, as in karate, as in 'The Way of Do,' 'The Way of Action, the way of kicking some ass,' of laying 'the beadown.' Nuts are shattered. Handjobs given. The tragedy of teenage angst plays out in all its vulgar extremes: sexual longing coupled with insecurity, boys posturing as men, attending bahmitzvahs and teasing exotic fish.
Carol Burnett is attributed with saying “comedy is tragedy plus time,” a cliché I picked up through Woody Allen's movie Crimes and Misdemeanors. The fumblings of two adolesent boys trying to learn karate, and how to be men, are funny only when seen in the rearview mirror. To the kids in the moment, the stakes are all too real, the thought that the 'poontang rainbow' might be forever out of reach and maturity unobtainable, terrifying. “If you don't laugh, you'd kill yourself ” — now that, Woody Allen did say.
Comedy can seduce you into wrestling with some of the fundamental issues of being human, and yet, comedy is unquantifiable. Explain a joke and you sap its punch-line of humor. 'Laughter's the best medicine,' a husband tells his wife who's dying of an inoperable brain cancer in Innis's story “My Tumor, My Lover.” The wife names her tumor George and imagines what kind of man he might be if she could crack her head open and haul him out, as Zeus did with Athena. The woman's wry moxie in the face of death has you grinning so hard, you're only just aware of the crushing sadness lingering beneath her cracks, a minor-key counterpoint to the story's light-hearted melody. It's a lovely feat Innis accomplishes.
The stories in Three Squares a Day with Occasional Torture brim with imagination – a woman carries on an affair with a fly, the girl on the Swiss Miss box, Swiss Miss herself, comes to life and man, is she one nasty girl – and yet the work never feels unrealistic. I know that doesn't quite make sense, but follow me for a moment. Like the work of Karen Russell or Haruki Murakami, Innis's conviction in her imagination is such that she doesn't try to lay it all out for the reader, sacrificing illumination for pontification, instead she seems to assume that you'll hang with her sharply precise, rhythmic constructions and haunting imagery, and so you do, grooving to characters that feel vital and awesome and flawed, and awesomely flawed.
Innis follows the opposite impulse of what the over-anxious, over-workshopped writer does on the page, providing an antidote to the antiseptic world of “great literature” with its accumulation of analysis-ready details, quantifiable gestures, and grandiose emotional arcs that often lie only one step removed from melodrama. She reminds me of an ancient shaman, perhaps not so different from the Paleolithic cave painter in Chauvet who sketched a woman's nether regions attached to the head of a bull, as seen in Werner Herzog's brilliant documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Herzog shows the evocative image, then cuts to a scientist talking about the primal importance of the combination of woman and bull, as evidenced by the myth of the Cretan minotaur and Pablo Picasso paintings like Guernica. Quantifying, quantifying, quantifying.
We're talking about poontang stuck onto a bull's head! Beautifully sketched, powerfully moving, and also funny. One can imagine the shaman giggling while he sketched it, and Innis would be there, laughing along with him. Sometimes, one should experience pleasure – of laughter, of emotion, of story – and nothing else need be said.