Too Much of the Wrong Thing
Reviewed by Alan Good
Contrary to popular perception, Twitter is not just a public chatroom for Nazis and a forum for misogynists to tell prominent women to get cancer. It is those things, of course, but on the fringes there are brilliant people. If you learn whom to block and what words to mute, you can turn Twitter into a paradise of writers. Some of the writers who use Twitter are either very annoying or use Twitter in annoying ways, but so many of the writers who aren't annoying make the website not only tolerable but interesting and fun and worth using. Twitter deserves all of the criticism it gets, but without that frequently horrible, horrifying website, I probably never would have heard of talented but not (or not yet) famous or well-known writers like Lucie Britsch, Chelsea Hodson, Joey R. Poole, Josh Olsen, Sarah Rose Etter, Kevin Maloney, and Claire Hopple, whose first book, Too Much of the Wrong Thing, published by Truth Serum Press in November of 2017, has gone sinfully unnoticed. (We follow each other on Twitter; Hopple sent me a copy of her book after seeing a tweet in which I said I was looking for writers whose books hadn't gotten enough attention. Apparently, until this review, her book hadn't been officially reviewed, not that any of this is all that official.)
Hopple's writing is spare, precise, often funny. I could plan an entire lesson on similes around this book. "Teryn's makeup was so thickly applied that it had to set up like a key lime pie." "I felt about as necessary as the first 'r' in February." "You felt like a banana on its tremulous journey home in a flimsy grocery bag." "A labeled chart of the eyeball was framed on the wall. It was shaded and color coded and it looked like a newly discovered planet." "Dating is like seeing an object shining in the sun and leaning over to see it's only a penny but you're already leaned too far over to stop."
She seems to specialize in characters who are, or who feel, out of place or who aren't really sure how to live: "Things pretty much go the opposite way I intend constantly," writes a man in a missed connection ad, "and I've grown comfortable with acting as if that's exactly what was planned." In another story, a woman checks her phone and sees her friend has texted her: "Come over stat! Bring some wine!" Turns out he's won the lottery and wants to celebrate (shouldn't he buy the wine?), but the woman, Macie, shows up wineless: "'I apologize,'" she tells her friend, "'it seems as if I'm only cleverly disguised as an adult. I had no wine in the house.'" Many of these awkward, uncertain characters are almost reverse solipsists, people who are pretty sure that other people are real but aren't convinced that they themselves are real. "Humans are too breakable to be real," thinks Ingrid, right before she finds out her grandmother has had a stroke. Ingrid "often thought about circulatory systems, respiratory systems, other bodily systems, breathing that is constant and necessary to sustaining life, everything so vulnerable." This vulnerability, this lack of faith in our own ability to function on a basic biological level, is central to many of the stories in the collection. For another character, a shy student writing a letter to her professor, the mundane act of washing your hands in a public restroom can be enough to cast doubt on her own existence: "none of the automatic faucets or paper towel dispensers would recognize my frantic waving and I thought maybe I could be a ghost."
Keeping with the theme of invisibility or ghostliness, a woman named Gwen describes a tour of her future workplace during a job interview: "Each time I had a question or comment, my [future] supervisor would look at the guy next to me and answer as if he had asked the question, or he would keep moving." Many people would seize on this moment to highlight the disparity between the way men and women are treated, the way that men are frequently taken more seriously. The disparity is real, but it isn't exclusive to a male-female dynamic. Anyone can feel, many people, regardless of gender, feel, invisible, irrelevant, ghostlike—and we don't actually know the gender of the narrator at this point in the story, "Talisman." If asked to guess, most readers, I suspect, would guess that the narrator is a man, based on the first lines of the story: "I followed someone. This person, Claudia, I knew her a long time ago." In the relay race of sort of hapless characters who want to be confident and functional but aren't, Gwen carries the torch of not really knowing what to do with grace: "I get so nervous about being the irresponsible one that I send birthday cards especially early to easy my mind. But then I worry that I send them too early; that it would seem like i didn't know when my family's birthdays actually are, which is somehow much worse." Thoughtfulness and articulateness can be handicapping.
Too Much of the Wrong Thing shows that writers, rather than adhering to the old maxim of "Write what you know," should write what they want. If someone had come to me and said, "Hey, should I publish a book of short stories in which four of the stories are written in the second-person?" I would have said hell no, but Hopple did it, and it works. She even throws a perspective curveball by starting a story told in the first-person with a generic you: "You make stupid-good money as a Santa Claus. Sure, there are parents who scan you up and down for any trace of child molester and there are kids who spit on you." That's from "Compulsive Truths," one of my favorite pieces in the collection. It's about a man who reinvents himself, after a divorce and a mistaken-identity-based ass-whooping, as a professional Santa. His career change forces lifestyle changes upon him, as well. When you look like Santa, he says, you have to comport yourself in a certain way because "Even if you're dressed in regular clothes, they can spot you. They know. So I've had to quit smoking because i don't want to be responsible for the youths of America keeling over from lung cancer." What does Claire Hopple know about being a bearded, divorced construction worker-turned-Santa Claus? Fuck all, probably, I don't know. But she knows what it is to be human, and that's what her book is about. "I expected life to be shitty," says Lancaster, our Santa, "but I was still curious about what that shittiness would look like." Those words could have been spoken by any of the characters in this book.
This collection contains twenty-four short stories, most of them short enough to be considered flash fiction. They've been published in places like Maudlin House, Foliate Oak, Hermeneutic Chaos, Third Point Press, and Monkeybicycle, among many others. A few of the stories, some of the lists, for instance, I wouldn't have been excited about if I'd come across them on their own, but the standouts—for me, they're "Craigslist Missed Connection," "Projector," "Recovery," "Compulsive Truths," "Talisman," (and I'm probably missing a few others here)—make me eager for more. I've read two excellent stories, published in X-R-A-Y and Jellyfish Review, that Hopple has published since the book came out. I'll read anything that she writes, but after so many brief glimpses into the existences of her characters I'm hoping she's digging into a giant novel.
This review is being published on the same day that James Comey's book, A Higher Loyalty, which is already a best-seller, for which Comey received a monster advance, is officially being released. I can't tell you how to spend your money, but I can point out that for what you'd pay for the Comey book you could buy two copies (one for yourself, one for your bestest friend) of Too Much of the Wrong Thing and have a couple dollars left over.
Too Much of the Wrong Thing
Truth Serum Press
If you're on Twitter, you should follow her: @clairehopple.