The title of Antonya Nelson’s new collection, Funny Once, prepares the reader for the sharp pang of nostalgia, the joy of a memory tempered by the realization that its time has passed, making way for a more somber present. The collection delivers on this promise, as its stories wade again and again into the way the past operates for its characters: the past as giddy relief from an unyielding now, the past as archives to be searched for the source of the unraveling future, the past as malevolent ghost, the past as the comforting pain of pressing a bruise. This is a collection of ex-lovers and old friends and deteriorating parents, all serving as mirrors to its characters’ former selves. The reader is left with the sense that these former selves would be, in most cases, not so much disappointed in as bewildered by the people they’ve become.
Funny Once is Nelson’s eleventh book, and while she’s shown herself to be a deft novelist, this collection highlights the reasons she’s earned a reputation as a master of the short story. At its most basic, the story form directs the reader’s attention to a moment of irreversible shift and works at revealing how it came to pass and suggesting what it might mean. For some writers, the immediacy is enough—the short story is a kind of fortune teller, leaving the reader with the anxious ache of what will come. In this collection, Nelson stretches the form the way that Alice Munro often does, giving at once the story of the moment that shifts something and the story of the story, focusing in equal measure on the thing that happened and the way characters remember it.
Nelson’s characters often carry their younger selves around with them; some obsess about the line between who they were and who they are, and others retreat as far as possible into the past. Multiple adult characters nurse addictions that were once the glamorous habits of their younger selves. Nana, the protagonist of “Soldier’s Joy,” sleeps with her now-married high-school boyfriend in her childhood bedroom and then gets high with him in the tree house next door, in order to avoid confronting the messier aspects of her adult life: the aging father she has come to help; the aging husband she has come to get away from without wanting to confront her reasons. In a New Yorker interview about the story “First Husband,” Nelson explains her interest in rebellious teenagers with the tongue-in-cheek response, “My interest in adolescence is directly related to the fact that I don’t seem to have outgrown it. For me? It’s all pretty much still seventh grade.”
But an emphasis on how close to the surface adolescence can be does not make these stories juvenile. They are willing to go bleak without blinking. In “iff,” Gloria, the narrator’s former stepmother-in-law, who is living with her after a suicide attempt, says to her that “the only saving grace of not being a mother” is “I have permission to kill myself. You don’t.” That blunt, brutal assessment of the terms on which people live feels weightier in a collection where mothers may, of course, kill themselves, leaving others to live with the consequences. In one of the collection’s strongest offerings, “Literally,” the last turn of the story calls into question whether the car accident that killed the family’s matriarch was in fact accidental. The story ends with Richard’s memory of his late wife’s long-ago confession:
“No, seriously. It’s bad. As a teenager, I used to play this dangerous game when I was driving. Closing my eyes. Turning off the lights. Speeding. It was pretty out of control. I was that unhappy. I really didn’t care if I lived or died.” She’d closed her eyes to recall it there in the restaurant, their table abruptly an island in a sea of surrounding meaningless chatter. Red splotches had appeared on her cheeks, beads of sweat on her upper lip. That worried crease on her brow, which she would share with her future daughter, and her young voice, forever thereafter in Richard’s head. “Just so you know,” she’d told him. “You can change your mind about me. Just forget marrying me and move on.” But that turned out not to be true. He couldn’t.
That closing gesture is Nelson in peak form. Richard’s wife—tellingly identified throughout the story as “Richard’s wife,” or “Danny and Suzanne’s mother,” or “la señora” by the nanny, but not by her own name—is in the penultimate paragraph both present as her younger self and forever haunting the future. The final sentence closes the story the reader knew was on the page—the story of a family living through a day of quotidian disasters as they feel their way through grief—but also opens the story that was underneath it all along, the story of a woman who disappeared into her life before leaving her family to wonder forever if she deliberately tried to disappear from it in a more final way.
Maternal abandonment works both ways in this collection. “The There There” finds protagonist Caroline adrift after being “abandoned” by an ex-husband and her two adult sons. She takes a partly maternal, partly destructive interest in the trials of Crystal, her younger son’s floundering ex-girlfriend. The story begins with a flashback and with the kind of line that illuminates the collection’s interest in being in two places at once: “Once, when they were still a family…”
When Crystal appears on Caroline’s doorstep at 3 a.m. some years later, railing against the news that Caroline’s son is getting “motherfucking married,” Caroline thinks to herself, “There wasn’t any answer for this; Caroline’s three men all either had gotten or apparently were going to get motherfucking married. She sympathized with Crystal.” The story ends on a note of ambiguity that calls back to its opening scene and leaves the reader uncertain whether Caroline has been snapped out of unhealthy fixations, or whether she has simply found a new means of recreating the family she senses has moved on without her.
For all of the dark material in the collection—the tiny losses and the inconceivable losses, the grieving of all stripes—this is not a relentlessly bleak book. It is, in fact, tinged with Nelson’s wicked humor, and moreover, it holds on to the sense that joy is possible; Nelson is interested in what’s on the other side of all of that disaster. Her stories grant many characters the mercy of not following through on the worst of their instincts and others the comfort of not having to pay for their mistakes in the way they fear they deserve to. The emphasis on death, the recurring issue of suicide, and the implicit repetition of the question why bother give Funny Once a heavy tone, but also underscore the notion that most people do, in fact, find reasons to bother in the end.
“The Village” opens with Darcy, a teenager who has totaled the family station wagon while drunk and seems in the throes of a potentially clichéd downward spiral, but is instead rescued—from that moment and from her place of shame in her family—by an unlikely friendship with Lois, her father’s mistress. Nelson doesn’t leave the story at that easy salvation—the story presented is not the story of Darcy’s adolescence, but Darcy as an adult, trying to grieve the loss of Lois and impress upon Lois’s family the significance of her role in Darcy’s life, without intruding upon Lois’s children’s memory of their mother. There is a grace in Lois’s role in Darcy’s life, and a grace in her recognition of it, and a grace in her protection of Lois’s underwhelming family, even as all of these things go unrecognized. Darcy’s knowledge of grace can only be internal:
Of course the twins loved their mother. They just didn’t love her properly, for the right things. They loved her generically, helplessly. She hadn’t rescued them. “She rescued me,” Darcy practiced saying to them, hoping she might convince them. “Your mother played a vital part in my troubled adolescence. She actually saved me, once upon a time.” Would they appreciate hearing that from a stranger at their mother’s memorial? Probably not. It might seem sly, upstaging, proprietary. Yet maybe they would want to know the small but essential kindness the woman had performed, that inadvertent help she’d given. Darcy couldn’t say that Lois had also, more profoundly, rescued her father. There was no one left to ask how long the affair had lasted, whether Lois’s divorce had created a problem.
“The Village” captures the complex structurethat works for so much of this collection: the story of what is and what was. Other stories in the collection place the emphasis on the filter of storytelling less successfully, to the point of not-quite-metafictional indulgence. Both Hil and Bergeron Love feel a bit under-realized in “Chapter Two,” a story that is ultimately about neither of them. “Winter in Yalta” feels at times like a flimsier version of “Soldier’s Joy”: Both stories paint a compelling picture of the past friendship between two contrasting women whose genuine affection for one another trumps their sense of competition, but in the present arc of “Winter in Yalta,” the two friends sometimes feel caricatured rather than characterized, one too much brain and the other too much body. There is spark in the story of their shared past, but the grief of the present and all of its losses feels flat.
“Three Wishes,” the novella-length final story of the collection, is not necessarily served by its length. It opens with the well-rendered tragicomic scene of three siblings—three remaining siblings, as they are prone to reminding themselves, their older brother having drowned as a teenager—duct-taping their father to his favorite chair in order to safely transport him to a home, since his dementia has progressed to the point that he cannot remain in his own house. But as the siblings embark upon separate plot arcs and Nelson tracks all three of them, the story begins to feel a bit wispy. Sisters Hannah and Holly leave so little impact that it’s unclear why the story doesn’t choose to stick to the aptly named Hugh Panik, who is clearly its center. Hugh’s sections can also feel weighted down by the time they spend focused on the creative-writing workshop for continuing learners that Hugh signs up for and then repeatedly ditches in favor of a flirtation with an intriguing classmate. There is a thematic resonance between the work done in the workshop and the work done in other stories in the collection that asks us to think about the way someone tells a story, and there is some pleasure in Hugh’s description of things: his delight in a particularly alliterative sentence, his speculation regarding how the creative-writing instructor has come to end up here. But ultimately the workshop sections come too close to pulling back the stage curtain with too little payoff beyond the easy punchlines. Hugh’s tender, awkward, and terribly ill-advised romance, contrasted with his ill ease in his role as the man of the family by default, are poignant and well-rendered and would be better served in a story that centered them and spent less time on everything else.
There are also moments where one might wish that the collection was expansive in a different way. Its protagonists are distinct and layered, but several stories gesture toward people who exist on the periphery of the protagonists’ lives. While the stories, and sometimes their narrators, seem to understand that these people are more complex than the way they are being used for contrast, the cumulative effect is that gay neighbors, multiple abusive Latino husbands, a grieving transgendered father, and a Latina nanny serve as local color or do characterization work for protagonists whose race or gender or sexuality is not made an issue, without ever really taking up their own space on the page.
Overall, though, characterization is Nelson’s strength. A great deal of the work in this book is the smallest details, or the subtle distinction between what point of view the character sees and what others seem to. Almost as telling as Darcy’s memory of Lois is the fact that she, all these years later, wears Lois’s signature perfume, a fact she’s nearly forgotten until Lois’s ex-husband notices and reminds her. There is, in people’s awareness of their surroundings, and of each other’s bodies and bodily presence, a physicality and a sensuousness. The repeated journey of this book may be from one variation of the self to the next, but Nelson is very much aware that we get there by moving through a concrete world, and so the interiority here is beautifully grounded.
There is a conversation among the stories here, and one could call this a book about aging, or a book about adolescence, or a book about the way women choose to shape lives by choosing where to be present and where to be absent. More expansively, it is a book about the kind of moment featured at the end of “iff,” where Nelson writes:
Hours later, I am brought upright and alarmed by a car outside. It screeches hideously at the tilted stop sign, slides screaming over the pavement for an unthinkable length of time. I brace to absorb the impending certain crash; surely all of my neighbors do the same—lonely Dave as he cruises the Internet, Miss Bernalillo County’s father-in-law the insomniac, Madonna Rage’s vigilant parent—our breath collectively held. But it does not come and does not come. We blink in the black, waiting.
This is a collection about the way that we brace ourselves for whatever arbitrary trauma may come next, and about the things we unexpectedly survive. It is a collection where it is possible to make it to the other end of the tragedy, but the distance people must go to become who they will be must always be traveled in a car that could run off the road at any minute. Funny Once is a showcase for Nelson’s finely tuned sense of structure, rich with stories that both satisfy the reader’s desire to have something resolved and leave the reader anticipating all that is left to be revealed. There is a dual pleasure in the shape of these stories, as though the writer has sent a wilted and forgotten postcard from a long-ago trip and then called to help the reader decipher it. Toward the end of “Three Wishes,” Hugh thinks, “Everything starts with an ‘if’ and ends with a ‘but.’” In Funny Once, Nelson lingers on those “if” moments, those by which characters are saved and those by which characters are forever marked, even if, in many cases, it will take them years to know the difference.