Contemporary Literature · Short Stories

The Office of Historical Corrections

My 10th Aspen Words Literary Prize 2021 longlist read! I’m two thirds of the way there – maybe I will actually make it! Anyways, this one was amaze-balls. As per usual, here’s a quick note with reactions for each story, and the closing novella of course, with some final thoughts to wrap it up.

The Office of Historical Corrections by Danielle Evans

“…the daily trauma of the historical record, the sometimes brutality and sometimes banality of anti-Blackness, the loop of history that was always a noose if you looked at it long enough.”

Happily Ever After – This opening story has subtle snark and insight about what makes a “happily ever after” for a person, the expectations versus reality, the person to person differences, the “promise” from society of what should make it. But like I said, it’s subtle; it doesn’t hit you over the head, but rather with a slow burn feeling. Similar vibe with the juxtaposition of the falseness of pop culture (the unreality of it, the surface-level and distanced aspect of it) and the reality of actual news/life. It’s all combined in a really unique way that highlights what should be a woman’s own choices for her life/future, but often is not allowed to be (especially for Black women), within limitations of expectation, culture, etc. “What future had there ever been but the imaginary?”

Richard of York Gave Battle in Vain – This second story really emphasizes Evans’ ability to write a compelling and interesting story, with a subtle but clear message, while also addressing and adding on-point commentary for myriad additional “side” issues. Just wow. The main point here that I loved was the way, with dark humor and a sarcastic bent, Evans calls out the farcicalness that is the American marriage/wedding industry, while also recognizing, on a deeper level, the danger faced by women on both a physical and mental/emotional level with the minimizing of self and the lengths that must often be reached to find/keep a man. And she brings it home with an ending that hits the reader hard. “But what did it matter what she deserved, faced with the hilarity of one more person telling her glibly that better was out there when she was begging for mediocrity and couldn’t have that?”

Boys Go to Jupiter – Well. Holy f*cking shit. What a story. This one is uncomfortable to read on so many (perfect) levels. What Evans does in these 30 pages is just beyond genius. I mean, right from the start this story is firmly rooted in displaying white privilege and the absurd degree to which it protects white people. And even if, as a reader, you have any inclination to say “well, she’s young” and “there’s extenuating circumstances” and “she deserves to explain because it’s not what it looks like” (and what does that mean anyway when considering impact over intent?), you still know (or should know) that that understanding wouldn’t extend the other way or in reversed roles. And then, Evans takes that knife of knowledge and shoves it so freaking far in, turning the tables, that not a single reader can be left with a single doubt about the protections and benefit of the doubt afforded only to white people in this country. And even with that experience behind her, our protagonist still only has to sit with a little bit of shame…not real or lasting consequences. And as a white reader, you’re left feeling all of that shame and MORE because we have let (and encouraged) our country stick by this BS so long without real change or repercussion – so what the F are we doing to fix it? Anyways, just, damn.   

Alcatraz – Once again, the biting and insightful commentary in Evans’ stories in a way that is neither too subtle nor overbearing is ridiculously impressive. Here, she manages to critique the prison system in the US (and the absurd commercialization of it), the dismissiveness/lack of interest in the individual (past their usefulness) that the US military complex has long shown, and the long-term effects of the history of racism (in this case, calling out the Jim Crow/segregation period specifically) on loss of connection among people and families in throughout country. And she does it all in a way that is deeply meaningful but also compelling in a basic literary sense. “…you take nothing for granted when the price of it is etched across the face of the person you love the most, when you are born into a series of loans and you know you will never be up to the cost of the debt.” / “There was something comforting about imagining I knew exactly what I’d been cheated out of.”

Why Won’t Women Just Say What They Want  Ahhhhhhhhh I LOVED this one. OMG the tone was freaking spectacular. The exact right pitch of sarcastic “call you on your BS” for the topic. I loved the way the message was infused with such derision into the bones of the story and Evans’ clear condemnation in the perceived untouchability and “I’m owed” countenance that so many men have when dealing with women, both in general and especially with those men who have drunk a bit too much of their own Kool-Aid. Also, the calling out of the (fake) “apology” and the many forms it can take was spot-freaking-on. I think, though it’s a tough call because so far all the stories have been lit, that this might be my favorite so far. “Like it was a technicality that she hadn’t specifically told him she wanted to be treated like a person.” / “He thought the Forgiveness was his to declare.”

Anything Could Disappear – Wow. This one was more of a subtle burn of a story, with a gorgeous and nuanced emphasis on the connections formed between people, the strength they can have, even under short circumstances. And really, the title is so accurate, as we see the many, many ways that a person could disappear: in death, being lost, being left behind, moving purposefully into another life (whether of one’s own volition or out of force/necessity) … If you think about, 10 or 20 years from now, all the hazy memories each of these characters will have of their short time with the others, it’s really striking.   

The Office of Historical Corrections ­­– Oh goodness, what a concept! The novella is a literary length that I don’t have a lot of reference points for, but I can tell you that I loved this one. It was both a page-turner and a “makes you think/reflect” story, which is always a most impressive combo. And the explorations of race (with particular focus on the “one drop rule” in historical context and the implications in present day), as well as the intellectual unpacking of the line between (and arguments about) correcting history versus revisionist addendums and who gets to draw the line where one ends and the other starts, as well as how that can be applied considering the original state of “revisionist addendum” in popularly accepted history are fire. Plus, there’s a side theme about motherhood, and the decisions/actions you’d take to ensure a protected, more advantageous, life for your children…which is a question so many people would answer with “anything” for themselves, but are (clearly) not willing to accept when others do. Amazing. “…the contemporary crisis of truth.” / “Midwest nice was a steady, polite gaslighting I found sinister, a forced humility that prevented anyone from speaking up when they’d been diminished or disrespected, lest they be labeled an outsider.” / “So much violence and lack waiting on the other end of the violence and lack that people poured out of the South to escape, and still they kept believing that there was someplace in this country where they could be Black and safe and make a home.” / “…my job was both done and forever undoable, a simple matter of reconciling record books and an impossible matter of making any kind of actual repair.” / “It felt unfair, how absurd someone could be and still be terrifying.”

Well, two short story collections into this year and I have more than doubled the number of 5-star short story collections I’ve (ever) read. Both this and The Secret Lives of Church Ladies are redefining my expectations of short stories. The stories in this collection are all just so fully and deeply realized, in a narrative voice that is a unique and perfect mix of insightful inspection and delightful snark. Evans takes the divides and realities of class and race, along with the history of class and race, and explores the way they indelibly and unavoidably affect interpersonal interactions. And she does it in a way that both illustrates and questions those boundaries. It’s almost intimidatingly intelligent, yet still fully accessible, writing. Just a truly phenomenal collection.

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