by Robert Lopez
Bellevue Literary Press, 2016
From the first page of Good People by Robert Lopez, I encountered a familiar sensation; the space behind my head got warm. It happens when I see an author doing something distinctly unusual, and it leads me to think, “There’s no way they can keep this up.” I want to throw the collection across the room and let it stay there, lest I see further what the author is capable of and have it override my motor functions. And then the author not only sustains it but keeps on pushing whatever they are dong to its breaking point, stripping down the form and conventions of a story, only to somehow have them spliced back together by the end.
The stories in Good People often pull in opposite directions. The narration moves nearly at a breathless pace; from sentence to sentence the subject matter will shift from memory, to action in the present moment, to physical observation, and back again. And yet, the rhythm has a meandering feel, like we are sitting beside a lazy stream of consciousness that is in no hurry to reach its destination.
The writing achieves complexity through repetition and layering. On the surface there is a straightforward declarative minimalism, even if that simplicity is clear about it’s own confusion, a bemusement of what is happening, and what naturally must occur. “I wanted to make it seem as if I hadn’t given this much thought. The truth is I hadn’t given it much thought, so it was important that I make this clear (pg. 164).”
I imagine this style is what would happen if Al Camus and Gertrude Stein teamed up to take down Hemingway, leaving him insistence but less so cocksure of himself.
There is a pervasive attitude of simple coldness, a forthright vulgarity. Issues of sexuality, death, and violence are not indulged as titillating; they are matter of fact, approached on the same level as what was eaten for dinner. It’s almost childlike in attitude. Everything carries a certain flatness of disposition that is simultaneously alarming and serene.
The tone of self-awareness in the characters is more about their acceptance that there are things outside their control, including their responsibility for perceiving things the way they do. For instance in The Sky Like Water Everywhere, “It probably doesn’t matter it happened on a Thursday, but that’s when it happened. When things happen are usually important, though so maybe I’m wrong about this part not mattering (pg. 103).” There is certainty in these first person points of view that uncertainty is a matter of fact, and bids the reader to agree that there could be no other way.
The narrators are never given a first or last name, there doesn’t seem to be the need for them, nor does it seem like they wander about in blindly. There are certain facts that act like anchors throughout the stories. In nearly all there is food, fruit, men and women, days of the week, and base urges, lived daily and as scenes from memory. There are neighbors, windows, siblings, friends, mothers, and lessons from fathers. We encounter the world of Good People through this “I” and it is eager to convince us that it is in the world, and can back it up by repeating these facts.
But we are let in on the fact that something is missing, an explanation or a clue to the confusion. “What is wrong with you,” is a question that becomes rhetorical to the Lopez’s narrators. All they know is that they don’t really know anything, but that won’t let that stop them. Their persistence produces a captivating foolishness. “I didn’t ask if she had a valid license, but I’m sure she does. And when I say I’m sure I mean I hope she has a valid license (pg.68).”
There is a dark wit that emerges in these characters’ candid inelegance in trying to win over our favor. Lopez mines this vein wonderfully. The humor comes across both subtly and overtly in turns of phrase throughout. To pull a quote for an example would lessen their effect, so I’ll say the story The Problem with Green Bananas is my favorite illustration of this.
Finally, Lopez’s stories don’t hold what might be traditionally called resolutions. Instead, the assumed facts and the uncertainties of narrator’s situation are themselves recurred and spun up enough to form a sort of wholeness. Sometimes there are enough ambiguities to fill up a story, a romance, a personal history, to carry itself convincingly to the end, all the while conveying its own charming essence. And it can be maddeningly delightful to watch.