Thursday, August 11, 2011

On "Portraits of a Few of the People I've Made Cry" by Christine Sneed ****

Sneed's book of stories, like many a collection (in fact, on some level, perhaps all) revolves around people at the edge of relationships. Several of the stories have specifically to do with the relationship between the famous--the celebrity--and the not famous. Interestingly, in each of these encounters, the not famous are starstruck, awed into idiocy by the possibility that they might touch something that stretches beyond their small, known world. It's a theme that I occasionally touch on myself in my writing, though I do it a bit differently, with a kind of cynicism that Sneed, I don't think, throws at her readers (I think, in part, my cynicism for such characters comes from having grown up in Los Angeles: I tend not to think of celebrities as anything more than regular people, albeit generally like pretty women who would rather not be disturbed by me unless they are the ones to start the conversation). Sneed, by contrast, isn't laughing at the silliness of such behavior; rather, she gets down and mourns with them that their own lives aren't spent in Hollywood or on some stage in New York.

The title story, for example, involves a woman the granddaughter of a famous (now dead) painter and her relationship to his work, to her own nonfamous work (unwilling to take advantage of her grandfather's connections to get in with the right people), and to a man she is seeing whose interest at times seems almost more in her grandfather than in her.

A couple of stories involve connections to Hollywood. In "You're So Different" a screenwriter returns for a class reunion to great honors in her small town. She's had five films made, and everyone thinks she's beyond whatever she can offer them, most especially a couple who invite her over for lunch the next day, the day she is to depart. The story is, in part, about envy for lives not lived and about the desire just to touch someone who has lived them. Similar to this, but from the opposite point of view, is "Alex Rice Inc." about a actor who decides to return to college for a degree and the teacher who has him in one of her classes. Here, I was reminded of a coworker of mine who had the pleasure of taking classes with James Franco a couple of years ago--everyone in class agog at him because he's been on screen. How do you not play favorites? How do you refrain from dreaming he'll fall for you?

In "A Million Dollars," my second favorite story in this collection, Sneed conjures the voice of an incredibly insecure woman who hides those insecurities in bravo speech. It's the voice that makes the piece so special. As for the story, again, there is a tie to fame, this in the form of a man who offers the narrator the possibility of becoming a model.

"Twelve + Twelve" is a lovely piece about an older man falling in love with the friend of his dead daughter. "By the Way" involves a younger man falling for a much older woman, whose fame in the dancing world has been eclipsed somewhat by age. "Interview with the Second Wife" contains a woman's reflections on an interview she one submitted to regarding the famous writer boyfriend she lived with for ten years. And "For Once in Your Life" involves a woman who returns to small-town life after living abroad with her now-ex-husband and how she finds herself drawn into the town's circle of busybody women (can't say women come off looking very nice here--it's one story that makes me feel like I'm lucky to be a guy).

The finest story in the collection is the first, but I'll live that discussion for another review.

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