Jen Michalski: ‘Could You Be With Her Now’

I’m a bit stunned.

Jen Michalski’s Could You Be With Her Now, a book of two novellas, is one of the most writerly books I’ve come across in a while. What I mean is, she gave a lot of thought to how she wanted to write these stories and then executed them so beautifully that the result is a piece of art to be admired as it is absorbed.

In the first novella, I Can Make It To California Before It’s Time For Dinner, she writes from the point of view of Jimmy, an intellectually challenged boy of 15. I cannot begin to fathom how she did this. Ever notice how characters in stories and novels are often intelligent and highly self-aware? That’s because writers are often intelligent and self-aware and in order to convey a character’s thoughts, it’s easiest to do so if that character is, um, thoughtful.

So to take a character whose brain development is so far behind, and get inside his head, and then figure out how to put those thoughts to words in such a way that is emotive: phew.

Here’s an example. Jimmy, who lives in Baltimore, takes a walk, thinking he’s walking to California to meet a girl from a TV show he’s fallen in love with: “I walk and sing and I sing that Rihanna song four times and then Justin Timberlake three times. My feet hurt but I know I am getting closer to California. The houses are bigger than the one I live in with Josh and my mom and dad. I wonder if they’re  bigger because more people live in them.”

Throughout the story, Michalski gets into Jimmy’s head to see the world through his eyes, to reason the way he would reason. The story itself is deeply disturbing and suspenseful. I don’t want to give it away, so let’s just say that this boy accidentally does a very bad thing, and finds himself in some helpless situations. I couldn’t take my eyes off the page.

The second, longer novella, “May-September”is quite different in that it’s a love story and its subjects are the self-aware protagonists you’re used to. Sentences are gorgeous. This, for example is one of the many times age is confronted, as the relationship that blooms involves a young woman and an older woman, more appropriately her mother’s age than her lover’s.

“Sandra pulled her nightgown over her head. There were hollows in her body where memories had been, names and places and dates but they had eroded, dwindled down to the bone and only the memory of them remained. An incongruity of bone and skin met at joints, ribs, like a folded chair that could no longer fold because it was broken.”

The story at times feels racy, because the characters are nervous about their romance and what people will think. And then at the same time… not so racy. It’s written in this beautiful language that takes its time and treats everything so gently, it feels sometimes like a lullaby, rooted in innocence.

Gigglers: I’m not going to seek out the newest hardcovers and tell you whether or not to buy them. And while not the Sunday Review, this Sunday blog will explore my brilliant and fascinating thoughts about books. Please use the comments section to share your own thoughts on this book, or whatever you’re reading.

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