Reviewed by Erik Lambert
Limbo is defined as “the state of being disregarded or forgotten. An imaginary place for lost or neglected things.” Janice Shapiro’s new collection of short stories offers a truthful gaze into what it’s like to be stuck at that proverbial fork in the road. Shapiro's characters are vulnerable, confused and uncertain if they should go back or forward. With a defiant voice, nostalgic historical references and thoughtful descriptions, Shapiro explains how limbo comes in many different forms but still poses the same question: How can I get out?
The title story, “Bummer,” follows a young girl named Alison as she attempts to salvage her time in Las Vegas after discovering she’s pregnant. Alison is a girl who “decided to study painting in the first place because it allows a person to exist primarily in the moment, you know, experience each brush stroke as it comes, the end of a piece presenting itself when it chooses.” Now rejected by her boyfriend, a Latino playboy and a casino worker, Alison defies them all by winning a few thousand dollars at blackjack. She is forced to stop living “in the moment” like she has been and start thinking about the future. “Bummer” confronts the classic transformation from adolescence to adulthood that pregnancies trigger. It’s time to step away from the tables and cash in your chips.
The story “In Its Place” is about a housewife trying to discover the secret to her neurotic next-door neighbors’ ability to keep their own home organized. It starts with an innocent entry into the house for a bandage while walking their dog, and blossoms into a home invasion two or three times a week. Her obsession goes too far when the neighbors’ sick son comes home early from school one day and catches her in the act. Trapped, she takes the son to the hospital, constantly assuring him, and herself, that she was just in the right place at the right time. Like a drug addict, the housewife convinces herself that she isn’t doing any harm. What she’s looking for is not a fix, but an answer. An answer to how she can solve the puzzle to achieving order in her life before she dissolves in a quagmire of chaos.
No story typifies Shapiro’s first-person, female perspective better than “The Old Bean.” Penny is working at a local coffee shop with a rainbow of personalities. Her husband has moved overseas for work and was expecting her to come with. However, her daughter Teddy—who attempts suicide after a disastrous break up—holds Penny back. “Even though my husband, Phillip, and I have never acknowledged it, we both know the biggest reason I did not move with him overseas was Teddy. To admit to that would be to admit to still having concerns that we try to tell ourselves have been put to rest.” You can hear the emotion in Penny’s voice. She wants to believe it. She has experts telling her she can believe it. But when she reaches that moment of decision to let go, her brain asks the question that terrifies her most. Can I let go? “The Old Bean” is about how a near tragedy takes what we hold most dear and turns it against us. It shows how far we will go for someone we love and how far we can fall if we let it consume us.
Bummer features women from all sections of society encountering those nail-chewing moments of life when they don’t know what to do next. Shapiro uses her screenwriting knowhow from UCLA coupled with a generous helping of life experience to effectively capture women in limbo: a girl wondering what to do with her baby; a woman wanting to know how she can find order; a spoiled brat seeking truth beyond credit cards and fast cars; a mother struggling to accept that she cannot protect her baby forever. These moments of desolation make the women question not only their endurance, but their self-worth. Every character is trapped at the bus stop without any destination in mind. The longer they wait, the more they realize that sitting at the stop is getting them nowhere. The only way for them to face their future is to engage it—to step onto that next bus.Posted on March 9, 2011 at 3:49 PM