by Killian Quigley
Published by Simon & Schuster, 2009 | 304 pages
Jean Thompson’s Do Not Deny Me is a collection of stories about the stories we tell: the tall tales, the petty fictions, and the other inner narratives that help us make sense of our small worlds. In the collection’s many moments of sharp clarity and inexplicable denial, Thompson shows herself to be a masterful storyteller. Here you will find many of the plots you would expect from a contemporary short-story collection—the woman still recovering from her divorce or the husband demonstrating his retreat from his marriage in odd ways. But this is not a weakness. Thompson deftly builds these character’s inner psychological realms to give unique depth to their fears and foibles. Indeed, this collection’s literary heights are rooted in the simple fact that these characters belong to this medium.
This becomes clear in the story that kicks off the collection, a piece that plays with narratives like Matrushka dolls. In “Soldiers of Spiritos,” Professor Penrose, an older, tenured English professor, reconciles his growing irrelevance by writing a thinly veiled memoir as a science-fiction novel, hoping for justice in cosmic, and admittedly comic, proportions. Thompson maps out each character’s neuroses by taking us through their daily humiliations, the sheer banality of which makes their hatred of themselves and their petty universes waver between realism and parody. She makes clear that Penrose and company know when they’re being ridiculous, but their self-awareness doesn’t mitigate their desire to indulge in self-pity, even when they know they really need to just suck it up.
Not all of the characters in Do Not Deny Me are so self-aware. “Escape,” for example, is a hilarious interlude that falls in the middle of the collection. Two retirees, Hurley and Claudine, wallow in the spite of their failed marriage, tormenting each other with repeated episodes of trivial and not-so-trivial retaliation. Quickly paced and written from the implacable perspective of a randy old man who wishes he had gotten away with more, “Escape” plays the animosity between Hurley and Claudine for laughs—although in a different light, the horrific domestic abuse would not be comic at all.
Even when Thompson seems to stumble, she still manages to pull off an impressive feat. Take Matt in “Mr. Rat,” a character who stands out for his phoniness. He’s as cliché as they come, a bro who seems to have stumbled out of a buddy flick. Most of Thompson’s protagonists are given plenty of space for introspection, and Matt is no exception. But compared to his compatriots, Matt’s witty moments come off as cheap cleverness. Though one may be tempted to convict this story of merely letting the main character be his jerky self, “Mr. Rat” deserves a second look. Thompson appears to have prevailed over one of the most difficult tasks in short fiction: making a story featuring a simple, shallow character worth your time.
Do Not Deny Me takes its title from a story in which the boyfriend of a young woman dies unexpectedly after a four-month relationship. Julia finds herself in the uncomfortable position of grieving without – in both her opinion and especially that of her friends – the entitlement to mourn that a longer attachment would have provided. As her loss unravels her staid life, Julia encounters a psychic who suggests that her dearly departed may be trying to communicate with her. The phrase “Do Not Deny Me” is more than a pithy title for the story and the book as a whole. Like an unsettled ghost or a guilty conscience, those four words become both a demand and command for recognition.
Throughout the collection, this idea seems to be a plaintive cry, an angry retort, or even a meditative mantra, bespeaking the dull yet persistent ache of desire. For some characters, it is a brave, bold expression that one deserves love or redemption. For others, it gives permission to retreat from society. For many, it seems to be a rallying cry both against and in confirmation of the certainty that one is alone in the world. But in each instance, it reaffirms the undeniable necessity of our tall tales, our petty fictions, the stories we depend upon to make sense of our everyday worlds.
Kamilah Foreman is an arts editor based in New York.