Beginners

02/15/2012 4:00 AM |

Other People We Married

By Emma Straub

(Riverhead)

No one in literary fiction expects a steady career. But a few recent success stories—Ben Marcus, Sam Lipsyte, Amelia Gray—have reached prominence on a path that resembles the credibility-assuring rise of the Hollywood indie filmmaker. The first book is published by a small press or online lit mag. After web reviews and Goodreads rankings percolate, the second attracts a major publishing house, and a new literary voice is “street-credified.” Who says the American dream is dead?

Emma Straub treads this path with a knack for control. Her debut, the 2009 novella Fly-Over State, was published online at Flatmancrooked and financed by readers who “pre-bought” it; her story collection Other People We Married, first made available through Five Chapters, now comes from the Penguin group. There’s a sugar-high urgency to her style-neutral prose, but her preferred setting (New York) and narrator (neurotic young woman on the fringe) might cause some readers to wonder why exactly they should buy her book, and not Self-Help by Lorrie Moore, an undisputed master of exploring human intricacies as if they were elementary novelties.

Rest assured: Other People We Married is its own thing. While Moore, who provides the cover blurb here, makes her lonely characters the target of her precise wit, Straub treats hers earnestly, as real people on the verge of reform. In “Rosemary” a new mom hires a psychic to help her find her missing cat. In “Abraham’s Enchanted Forest,” a teenager trapped in the roadside-attraction business plots to escape.

What holds them back? Men. The hassle of despicable qualities in significant others is common to all these tales. It’s a less-than-optimistic view of marriage, but Straub doesn’t seem to feel that the institution is bad—only that it’s boring, and boredom breeds contempt.

Other People We Married could just as easily be called Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. It establishes Straub as a wise and perceptive storyteller dealing with the looping doubts that go hand-in-hand with a stagnant household. And if the first marriages it depicts are any indication, one might be better off joining the second wives’ club.