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Stacey Richter

Stacey Richter is an American writer of short fiction. Richter has been the recipient of four Pushcart Prizes, a National Prize for Fiction and the National Magazine Award. She is the author of My Date with Satan and Twin Study.

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"Richter possesses a commanding grasp of narrative and human interaction, and a sharp ear for dialogue, allowing these tales to elevate beyond simply 'unusual.' The collection is witty, poignant, and admirably perceptive."

– Leah Strauss

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Twin Study

In and Around The Land of Pain

03/26/12

When I was about four years old, my father decided to quit his job as a systems analyst and move our family to a tiny town — a hamlet, really — in the Sierra Nevada mountains, where he would become a utility man. He took a huge reduction in pay and prestige, and went from writing computer programs to dumping garbage and cutting grass so he could spend more time with his kids. He wanted to be able to come home for lunch and see us as we ran around town with our friends — a privilege we never would have had in Southern California.

My father was a very healthy man. He was a runner and, when he lived near the ocean, a surfer. And yet, one day, while lifting a garbage can, he ruptured a disc in his spine. The doctors seemed unsure how to treat his condition, so they experimented. They used him as a surgical guinea pig: fused his spine, broke it, put screws in without his permission, removed them, carved his back with scars, inserted a hockey-puck-sized morphine pump just under the skin of his abdomen, and then misplaced a decimal point while recalibrating it, nearly killing him. Over the course of ten years he had about ten surgeries. Pain became part of his daily life, one it seems they will never be able to fully relieve.

I don’t talk about this much, because people don’t seem to understand it. My father looks pretty normal. He gets scowled at when he parks in the handicapped spot, though he has a valid placard; you can’t see his pain most of the time, and when you can it presents itself with a limp and a scowl. He was once yelled at by an old woman who bought the seat behind him at an amphitheater (he’s 6’4” and long-bodied, so his torso might be that of someone four inches taller) who refused to believe he needed the thin cushion he sat on, or that he couldn’t slouch on account of his fused vertebrae. Because he isn’t in a wheelchair or visibly maimed (I sometimes wish he would lift his t-shirt for these doubters and show them the eight-inch scar down his spine) people aren’t sympathetic.

I’d resigned myself to this fact until I read “The Land of Pain” by Stacey Richter, the ninth story in her second collection, Twin Study. I had never thought to look for fiction about chronic pain until I stumbled across a story about it in my stack of prospective thesis books. It felt fated, especially when I discovered the story had originally appeared in the journal, Willow Springs, where I interned, edited by my thesis advisor, and was written in the second person: my favorite point of view to play with. What amazed me most was that the story handles the subject subject glibly, yet it’s so apt:

“You go for a walk and during the walk something happens: you trip, you fall, you dive off a cliff; you crash, you twist, you type for hours, you age. When you get home, you notice that your house looks slightly different than when you left — mushier, if that’s possible, with misaligned corners. You open the door and are surprised to find a foil banner hanging over the mantle.

“It says: Welcome to the Land of Pain.

Reading this without understanding what chronic pain can do to a person, this might seem light. It might seem silly. And that’s the thing about this story — and nearly all the stories in Twin Study — Stacey Richter chuckles her way through some of the most intimate subjects, adding flash with fast-paced prose and quirky characters. She sends Barbie-loving cavemen through a time tunnel, douses a rock-star mother in champagne and makes her sing, switches the lives of twins, and puts a princess in the emergency room. She grows a mindless clone, teaches her ballet and yoga, and watches her twirl in her favorite tutu, but then her face straightens, and she stops to ask, “How can you say goodbye to your unbroken version, the good version, the one that dances?”

I sent “The Land of Pain” to my mother once, and told her she and dad might find it interesting. She read it, then wrote back: It was so sad. A simple review, and one you might not expect from a second-person piece of pseudo-science-fiction. I tend to forget, between readings, how much Richter toys with my emotions. I flip through the stories and decide to read “The Cavemen in the Hedges,” mostly remembering the cavemen and their penchant for glitter, but by the time I finish reading, I’m devastated. I’ve sat through the drum circle by the Burger King, wallowed in loss. I have to read the next story to get over the last one, and on and on, until I’ve finished the book and want to start over again.

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