Make Me Do Things. By Victoria Redel. Four Way Books, 2013. 200 pages, $17.95.
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Victoria Redel’s sexy, smart Make Me Do Things is grounded in the often artsy, urbane worlds of middle-aged women and men who raise kids, work and work out, desire, and live in places like New York and Provincetown. Redel is a writer fluent in both fiction and poetry, having published three previous books of poetry and three of fiction, including her first story collection, Where the Road Bottoms Out (Knopf, 1995), contracted by her then teacher at Columbia, editor Gordon Lish, whose influence remains palpable more than three decades later. “He was very exacting,” Redel has said in an interview, emphasizing his belief that the story had to work “from the first sentence on.” What Redel so valued in Lish was his fierce attention to structure and his “permission for me to have my own singular kind of voice.”
The eleven stories in Make Me Do Things all embody Redel’s “singular kind of voice,” one I’d call fearless, sometimes brash, but compassionate, too. Like two other contemporary masters of the short story, Antonya Nelson and Amy Bloom, Redel has a gift for dialogue and for recreating the distinct rhythms of individual lives. True to Lish’s influence and to her training as a poet, Redel’s stories work on the level of the sentence, as in the opening to the first story, “You Look Like You Do”:
It was there, late into the party, after the birthday cake had been served, after she’d drunk a good deal of red wine and taken too many hits from the joints that floated by her, that the husband told Sabina that he and his wife had been thinking about her, that they’d been thinking about her since that first night they’d met her a few weeks back. “When we’re making love,” he said, “we think about you all the time. . . .”
The story follows Sabina as she works out with a trainer and confides in him, her self-image amplifying as she begins to take seriously the all-too-apparent proposal on the table. Despite the fast-paced and tantalizing language, my first instinct is to resist the sexiness of “You Look Like You Do,” especially when Sabina begins having “fantasies” that go from “frigid to torrentially orgasmic.” What raises the bar here is the conclusion in which Sabina winds up sleeping with the wife, yes, but their connection is less sexual than it is fundamental, the embodiment of the need to care and be cared for, and the shock and the joy that comes with such connection.
In a lesser writer, or a less mature writer, topics like infidelity, the subject of some four of the stories, could come across as a little too easy; but Redel manages to bring depth, and a surprising gravitas, to each work. The surprise at the end of “You Look Like You Do,” and several of the other stories, may well be another debt to Lish. “You can’t know your ending,” Redel says in the same interview. “[Gordon] would say that if you know where you’re going, then there’s no real discovery in the piece of writing, there’s a loss of energy, and I’ve never written any story with any sense of the ending . . . ”
Another hallmark of Redel’s stories are their sensuous, nuanced details that ground the reader, as in this opening to “On Earth”:
“What if we were the last ones on Earth?” her daughter said after Sasha turned off the bedside lamp and put the book back on the shelf.
“That’s not a bedtime question, buckaroo,” Sasha said, leaning to press her lips against her daughter’s cheek. Ella’s cheek in the dark seemed softer than at any other time of day, the skin almondy from bath soap.
“On Earth” exemplifies the ethos of Make Me Do Things, reminding us that intimate relationships must be ever-evolving and improvisational if they are to sustain us. Ella is obsessed with the disappearance of the dinosaurs, a disappearance that quietly haunts “On Earth.” Why?—because their vanishing is an evolutionary example of the losses—the shifts—the characters face from day to day. Sasha’s inability to explain their extinction to Ella so as to comfort her is a testament to the limits a mother runs up against—again and again—in preparing her child to remain grounded and simultaneously flexible enough for life on this earth.
Although I’d love to touch upon the aging Russian ballet mistress in “The North Train” (who travels to the suburbs to teach little girls who cannot pronounce her name and who just might share some similarities with Redel’s Romanian-born, ballerina mother), it is the longest story in the collection, “Trust,” that brings a real expansiveness to the largely domestic—familial, lovers, parents and children—situations in Make Me Do Things. “Trust” focuses on the aspiring artist Jaye’s relationship with Maurice, a monumentally famous artist who is now elderly and blind and living in Provincetown. Jaye is hired to read to Maurice every afternoon, and what she reads is Vasari’s The Lives of the Artists. Initially, Jaye is eager to grab the ear and the attention of the aging master, which she does when she shows up at his house wearing only a slip. Such antics are typical of the characters in Make Me Do Things; but “Trust” is layered with a perspective embodied by Maurice, who reads Vasari not for a window into the histories of canonical Renaissance painters, but for the physicality and the gritty and petty but deeply human actions it contains:
“That’s what I love,” said Maurice, his head tilting as if talking to someone just out of reach. . . . “Who was famous? Who was jealous? Who was destitute? Fame created and talent squandered.”
“But The Primavera or The Birth of Venus are like major mentions for Vasari.” Jaye heard the like in her sentence and wanted to do it over. “The substance seems thin in so much of Vasari; you’d never know what was going to matter in history.”
The conversation establishes a perspective on fame and achievement within the story, and ultimately within the collection as a whole. Redel’s characters are largely the haves (as opposed to the have-nots), and her stories pulse with their passions and strivings—the lengths that accomplished or just privileged people go to get what they want—with self-aware humor and just enough edge. Maurice’s words, that it really doesn’t matter in the end, all the striving and the jostling for fame, bring an enlarging perspective to bear on Make Me Do Things. Or to put it another way, take Sandy, Jaye’s garden-loving landlord, who has the last word in the story. On the eve of a major frost, he recruits Jaye’s help: “Today I’ll harvest the whole shebang. Then for a few more nights we’ll dine like kings. After that, every trace but what we are able to hold onto in our sorry, lonely cabezas is pretty much gone.”