Jessica Lee Richardson's debut collection teems with double magic - families of spiders, monsters in triplicate, and panels of bleacher-sitting grandfathers (who live in a diaphragm!) cohabitate with a starker, more familiar kind of strange in a hyper real and living tapestry of teenage porn stars, lovelorn factory workers, and art world auctioneers
Jessica L. Richardson, It Had Been Planned and There Were Guides: Stories, Fiction Collective Two, 2015.
read it at Google Books
Jessica Lee Richardson's debut collection It Had Been Planned and There Were Guides teems with double magic - families of spiders, monsters in triplicate, and panels of bleacher-sitting grandfathers (who live in a diaphragm!) cohabitate with a starker, more familiar kind of strange in a hyper real and living tapestry of teenage porn stars, lovelorn factory workers, and art world auctioneers. From a woman who awakes from a short kidnapping with an unquenchable need for risk to a concrete boat ride gone off the rails, from Los Angeles to the Bronx, from the Midwest to North Korea, these stories explore the absurd in real spaces and the real in absurd spaces, seeking a way into something else entirely. Here environments participate in agency, and voice compels movement forward, through, and in. Richly patterned language refuses singularity and the finger trap of the binary, seeking permeability in its reflection, a soft net to catch collective echoes. The collection begins and ends with stories that literalize descent and ascent, bookending the mirrored shape of the book's arrangement as a vision of an inverted arc. The shape of story is literalized. We slide down from a mountaintop all the way to the inside of a womb and back, slipping on slopes unmarked by signs, catching stunning glimpses along the way. The journey along the track of desire might be frightening if it weren't for all the water, if it weren't for the bounce of the ride.
Then a surprising thing happened, which is that we didn t die. Jessica Lee Richardson s brief, jagged, lit-up stories present a world of precarity in which the precincts of the sentence propel the protagonists towards and away from peril with the capriciousness of wanton gods: I dropped through the trap door at the bottom of the bottom and came out on top. In this world of prodigious and acute risk, in which every angel is drug tested and Baby Girl Bristol reads the writing on the wall, radiant hyperfluency is both a necessary skill and an interface through which all the toxic mediumicity of our present moment can flood. I looked in the mirror and it was like I could see the halo. Now I have Beyonce in my head. Google. Amen. - Joyelle McSweeney
“This book has heart and heft and heat and equal doses of wonder and quirk to keep us on our toes, not knowing what might be waiting for us, not just on the next page but inside the next sentence. Richardson’s tongue is an organ of the eye. Her prose sings cleanly, her ear hears with its hand not just cupped around it but it reaches out to pull us in and hold us all a little closer.” —Peter Markus
“You know how you keep that piece of paper and pen next to the bed to capture those brilliantly enriched osmotic mots justes emanating from the edge of the edge of waking sleep? And you know how the vivid quarry eludes you; how you’re left with the snare of scribbles, memories of the memory, in the morning light? The stories in Jessica Lee Richardson’s teeming It Had Been Planned and There Were Guides are goddamned Google maps of those saturated hypnopompic, hypnagogic states, rendered with such exacting detail and pristine clarity that you can do nothing more than conclude the murky margins of the world have been turned inside out and the meanest meanings ever meant are sunbathing there, plain as day.” —Michael Martone
Jessica Richardson’s first collection is as dexterously crafted as its content is deviant and feral. The collection gains its title from a line in the last story “Shush,” in which an unidentified group plunges over a waterfall in a concrete boat and survives, ending up amidst a flock of flamingos. If it sounds weird, it is, and Richardson is drawn to such weirdness, though in an older sense of the word, where its definition is “fatefulness.” Macbeth’s Weird Sisters are the Fates. And in It Had Been Planned and There Were Guides, Richardson plays all three.
Richardson writes in such a way that a colony of the most awkward animals on the planet are suddenly “kissing and licking feathers, biting themselves and each other, soft beaked. A flamboyance of pink necks, the letter ‘S’ multiplied….” Richardson imbues what-if scenarios with high stakes and poignancy. In speaking of the collection, it’s hard not to want to simply catalog the ground situations of Richardson’s stories, which are, again, wild enough to be entertaining simply in terms of their premises. Of course, this flattens the genius that not so much saturates Richardson’s writing as it does provide the scaffolding for her premises and execution.
Each piece in It Had Been Planned diverges from what comes before and after, except for “No, Go.” and “No, Go. Continued,” the two-part story that forms the hinge of the diptych into which Richardson has formed the collection: “Descent” forms the first half of this diptych, “Ascent” the latter, a decidedly hopeful configuration, or at least one that suggests redemption.
Every piece of text in the “No, Go”’s is an email interrupted with messages from a censoring software called NoGo, or a chat message from NoGo customer service reps. The story simulates the collapse of language, suggesting language is a bridge that can only take so much weight. Richardson traps the reader in a crossfire of rhetoric aimed at different parties: a husband’s at his wife who won’t share custody of their son; the same husband’s toward three different customer service reps; the wife’s toward the husband; and the messages the husband leaves for his son at the bottom of his messages to his wife. These last messages become increasingly disjointed and oddly punctuated so that the NoGo software can’t interrupt with its useless recommendations, like replacing the word “manipulating” with “managing, directing, controlling.” The result is messages to a young son that look like this:
B u t, M.I.K.E.Y?While “No, Go.” and “No, Go. Continued.” occupy a strange form for a common phenomenon (divorce), other stories describe strange phenomenon in plot structures that look suspiciously like Freytag’s pyramid. Take “Not the Problem,” a story of an old woman who takes an interest in a family of highly human spiders in her assisted-living apartment. A traditional plot arc and a third-person point-of-view combine to lure the reader into the belief that the story’s content and purpose will also be familiar and recognizable. But because “Not the Problem,” like most of Richardson’s stories, meditates on the ugliest kinds of love, and because such love is unpredictable, Richardson’s stories come off like magic tricks: you sense you’re about to witness something wild—the shape of the plot dictates it—though you can’t guess what that wild thing will be. The beginning of “Not the Problem” suggests the granddaughter who martyrs herself (not literally) to “care” for her grandmother will be the climactic catalyst, but that’s not the climax. The climax occurs when the grandmother’s anger prompts her to eat one of her spider friends—her very favorite one. With this action, Richardson shows how real love works: it’s as ugly as it is unexpected. It’s nearly the same with her plots: they are as inevitable as they are unexpected. The grandmother eats her favorite spider because the ones we love the most we bite the hardest.
BeverBeverIs this desig Nogo snagknow this: i.a.m.a.w.e.e.d.m.i.k.e.y.a.n.d.s.o.a.r.e.y.o.u….w.i.l.d.n.o.c.o.n.c.reet can
The same dirty, unexpected love also shows up in the collection’s first story, “Call Me Silk,” in which the narrator’s thrill-seeking takes her to a homeless camp where she is attacked. Like “Not the Problem,” it’s possible to identify a mounting tension familiar to any Freytagian plot, but it is the chasm between the reader’s expectation and narrator’s reality that is so destabilizing.
“It wasn’t the first time I was raped,” the narrator tells us, “and I don’t want what I’m about to say to diminish how dark a crime it is to attack the nexus of intimacy. But this time I loved it. It wasn’t one of those fantasy come true situations—it’s dirty and wrong so it’s hot, like your groin is full of flaming pennies. It was heaven, ambrosia and harps, clouds turned to cream laced with cherries, whatever your image for heaven—this was mine, this rape. …‘I love you I love you I love you,’ I rattled in spats. …I don’t care what you call me…because I dropped through that trap door at the bottom and came out on top. Power is circle we oval so vertical it appears line thin.”
The climaxes (plot-related and otherwise) of It Had Been Planned surprise even the most veteran reader, though Richardson balances such spontaneity with believability. Who could have predicted that the way the narrator in “Call Me Silk” would “win” her rape was through loving her attacker, though by the end the story, the scales have fallen from our eyes and we see the narrator’s love is inevitable and powerful and ugly.
And most of Richardson’s stories deal with ugly love. In an era of irony and deflection, I acknowledge that this is a dangerous claim. But I would also claim that irony and deflection are being killed off, hallelujah, thanks to New Sincerity and probings into the word “sentiment” and also writers like Richardson, whose battle-axe in the war against normal is earnestness.
There’s an anecdote Carl Wilson relays in his 33 1/3 book What We Talk About When We Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste, which is about Celine Dion’s music. He tells of how Elliot Smith met Dion at the 1998 Academy Awards, and how she was so kind to him before his performance, so earnest, that Smith had to admit “she was too human to be dismissed.”
Richardson’s stories are too human to be dismissed, too human to require much suspension of disbelief, even if she is writing about preening flamingoes or a family of spiders or a box full of exotic animals that can be killed and revived at the whim of the little girl who receives them as a gift.
For the stingier reader, who remains unconvinced of sentiment, behold the Other, whose presence in her stories is about as ubiquitous as that of dirty love. Richardson finds a way to write convincingly about the chronology of environmental, labor, and family laws, and also the scientific invention of a body suit that protects swimmers from the jaws of the beasts they will almost certainly encounter. She has a new master carpenter creating doors and cabinets and even place settings with detail so fine, it seems she derives her content from past lives, years of personal experience and expertise.
It Had Been Planned’s population would shine in any diversity index, and, in the same way Richardson rescues love from triteness, so does she write with the compassion and detail necessary to pull off a likely encounter with otherness. At the same time, the collection shrugs off political benchmarks for diversity and narrows its focus to the micro-level of emotion, leaving the reader transfixed by humanity instead of shrinking back from an agenda.
In “Check and Chase,” eponymous child twins believe their house eats their toys. Richardson leaves a breadcrumb trail up to the belief that the twins’ druggy mother has been selling their toys for the product she craves. But then out of the ether comes this: “The house wondered why the kids were such pussies. It felt it deserved competitors of greater merit. These kids were practically feeding it their toys…. The house searched itself for something that would be properly missed.”
There’s magic at work here. Richardson paints a specific picture of this family: a mother who’s sleeping if she’s not doping; young kids who are in charge of feeding their even younger brother; “hope of a stepfather with his own DS system”; crap uselessly stockpiled amid shitty furniture; toys “distributed by Charity Santa”; Check’s “cheek, which was darker than hers [Chase], the color of cardboard in the rain.” There are a million familiar places this story could go, and again, we think we recognize the trail. But the magic comes with Richardson’s pulling the house’s sentience out of nowhere, a rabbit out of a hat. Such a switcheroo not only allows for the kids to be labeled “pussies”—is there anything more politically incorrect?—but it also validates and literalizes their belief, however rife with child-logic, that the house stands against them. To describe this move in terms of pop-culture lexicon, Richardson leaves it right there, allowing the reader to deduce analogs to poverty or test the textures of the kids’ rough world.
The already-mentioned “Call Me Silk,” the first story in the collection, and perhaps its keystone, similarly shunts aside political expectation. For all the politics that could be brought to bear on its events—rape, gender dynamics, self-sabotage—“Call Me Silk” is also about extreme sports, a simpler but no-less interesting premise that allows the story to be read for entertainment as much as intellect, in the same way that Shakespeare’s plays reward a scholarly analysis and a scatological sense of humor. Richardson’s collection is Carnival: expectation is turned on its head, though no topic or emotion is too dark or sacred to be left behind. - MEGHAN TEAR PLUMMER
Falling asleep in public places, surrounded by people, I have felt the ambient chatter of other peoples' conversations overlapping and converging with the thoughts inside my head as they drift away from being thoughts altogether, on the edge of coalescing into the images that demarcate the beginnings of dreams. Like these moments, the voices in the opening suite of stories in Jessica Lee Richardson's It Had Been Planned And There Were Guides seem to spin on unseen axes, their narration existing in a space outside the body of the characters that expectation would suggest they speak for. They seem to float just above the skull, like the cartoon angel and devil of conscience, were they to free-associate for the sake of amusing each other rather than debating to determine how a human should act. The way one thought follows another feels dissociative-dosed, uninterested in attempting insight about, say, working in the porn industry, to name the basic premise of a story called "Haut Culture." That's a loaded topic, but the perspective on it found here is almost like someone trying to recount a news story only half-recalled, for the sake of making some anecdotal point about the conversational subject at hand, the connecting point being a minor detail that overlaps in both instances. These sentences seem capable of going way out, into deep space, but never go inside, to be present within the realm of what the stories are ostensibly about.
Take this passage, from the opening story, "Call Me Silk":
I don't care what you call me either, because I dropped through that trap door at the bottom of the bottom and came out on top. Power is circle we oval so vertical it appears line thin. I would offer a scene to show what happened when I stopped dropping, but I don't want you picturing me. I believe in messages of bliss slipped under the crack into the bottles of you, breadcrumbs in your wood, though.
In this passage there is an anthemic fist-pumping quality, but it's delivered as if standing unsteadily on a floor littered with ball bearings and thus is unable to commit to a rousing effect. It is possible, then, to mistake this for "bad writing," but these stories' use of the first-person perspective seems to say that to be an I is to be forever explaining oneself to yourself as well as to others, and to only be able to do this using the signs floating about, either in the ether or in your immediate surroundings, creates multiple double-binds of miscommunication. This is true, and a big thing, and it's felt far more viscerally here than in the short stories of those whose attempts at mimesis of the observable make a more persuasive case as to the reality of what they describe. These stories are not defined by a failure to get inside their character's heads, but are about the floating feeling of trying to make sense of yourself and your situation.
These stories are demarcated into a section marked "Descent." It's followed by two small sections, "Impasse" and "Ascent," that split in half a two-part story where, following the thread of language's derangement, a man attempts to type an e-mail expressing his frustration with his ex-wife over the custody of their child after installing lawyer-recommended software designed to stop him from saying anything that would reveal his rage. We read the text he attempts to compose, the interruptions he receives, and his struggle to communicate a single thought without interruption. We see it all on the page as it would play out on screen, the thoughts mediated by machinery, rather than the mind, and so we understand that the disconnect at work in the "Descent" section is the result of a mind so self-conscious it breaks itself.
The second half of the book, marked "Clearing," is unobstructed. What we can see is the mess we've made, how far we've fallen, the way we derange ourselves. The subject, to a degree, becomes communication, how to do it clearly. The plotlines are immediate, the storytelling antecedents recognizable. "Two Angels," premised on ideas of social-media-style approval functioning inside corporate culture, feels like a George Saunders story. "The Best Deal," with its use of fantasy elements as a way of relaying a thought experiment, is in the vein of Borges, or Millhauser, or Silvina Ocampo.
It is the story "The Lips The Teeth The Tip Of The Tongue" where my feelings shifted from "this is interesting" to "this is really good." The sense of the self as being split between two doubles, a private name (Janie) and a performing alias (Baby Girl Bristol), is made explicit, and it feels like Richardson is explaining herself and her method, in the story of an auctioneer, who in her fast-paced multi-syllabic song sneaks in secrets no one hears. When she is confronted with the idea of having one of her performances being recorded -- and remember that being recorded is essentially a ubiquitous part of twenty-first-century life -- she begins to panic and plan a deliberate performance where she will not be herself:
But BGB was so accustomed to merging her inner life and mind's eye with figures that separating the two proved tiresome. Not just tiresome. She felt like a stone. She wavered between feeling like a stone and bursting into tears over goat cheese crepes.
A later sentence makes the connection between the character and the author more explicit: "Conducting a room was about going there, meeting people in their self-spaces and the only out into them, was in, into her."
The space between outside and in is a messy line, like the sight of a brutal murder, and Richardson navigates it with humor, making puns of the slippage between larger culture and private memory. Another way to say it is that these stories go for the juggler, and that for every ball dropped it is a dizzying experience, keeping your eye on what's in the air. - Brian Nicholson
Richardson’s debut collection of short stories, which won the FC2 Ronald Sukenick Innovative Fiction Prize, seems pretty trippy. It “teems with double magic—families of spiders, monsters in triplicate, and panels of bleacher-sitting grandfathers who live in a diaphragm,” according to the jacket copy. Stories unfold in Instant Message conversations with computer programs, or through entries from an old woman’s scrapbook, or on placards at an art museum. I opened to a random page and encountered this sentence: “He punctuated his comment with a sip from his cherry pie vodka, like he simply didn’t give a single fuck anymore.” - Katy Waldman
I have never had my palm read, though I am enchanted by palmistry, fates, and other mystical practices. As it goes, there are six major lines on a human palm upon which a fortune teller bases their predictions. Every individual may not present all six lines, and while the lines are individually important, they say as much in conversation as they do alone. A quick browse online reveals my palms lack several of the six key lines, though I won’t say which ones.
A drawing of a hand, palm facing out to the reader, fingers outstretched, features on the cover of Jessica Lee Richardson’s FC2 Ronald Sukenick Innovative Fiction Prize-winning debut, It Had Been Planned and There Were Guides. This hand—raised and open—serves both as a greeting and a warning for the stories this collection contains. The title and author’s name are carved in black ink onto the palm and wrist of the hand; this, too, bears a sense of duality, as it reminds us both of benign teenaged note-taking practices and the more morbid yet classic TV device of a moribund friend passing along a clandestine message, as from Charlie to Desmond in Lost or Dr Sanjay to Mulder and Scully in the new X-Files. Several of its six lines are missing too.
The title of the collection is echoed on the first page of the final story, “shush,” where it is meant as a calming agent to reassure the reader that riding downhill in a concrete boat is not a totally insane decision. The sentence, “It had been planned and there were guides,” also dictates the form of the book; the contents are divided into four sections: descent, impasse, ascent, and clearing. They are quite literal representations of the stories classed within this system.
descent is by far the most gut-wrenching section of the book, and while moments of beauty appear like gemstones in the rock face, Richardson doesn’t care what you think of stereotypes. Her cast of characters can be ‘gritty’, sometimes infuriatingly so, as in the opener “call me silk” and in “haut culture”, both of which I think detract more than they add to the collection as a whole. I would hesitate to suggest avoiding any stories altogether, but maybe don’t read those two first. My assessment of the descent isn’t all bad, just as my assessments of the rest of the collection are not all positive. The racially and socio-economically charged “check and chase” tells the story of the twins’ search for their beloved train set in a house that regularly eats their possessions.
impasse and ascent each contain half of a longer, more formally experimental and tonally playful set called “no, go.” This set is centered around a computer privacy software program called Nogo that operates through your email service provider to encourage cautious and constructive interaction but, as it turns out, creates far more chaos once installed than it is able to reign in. Unlike the harrowing descent, I found myself laughing out loud during “no, go” parts one and two—an unusual, unrestrained reaction to protagonist’s interactions with his ex-wife, his lawyer, and various hapless employees of Nogo. This middle section—a blockage and then a climb out of the darkness—is representative of both the contents of “no, go” and It Had Been Planned and There Were Guides as a collection.
Then there is the clearing, the fourth section and our final destination. The ten stories contained here mark a return to the traditional prose form; while certainly not all uplifting, they resonate differently than descent in mood and subject. If the first section was political, this final one is magical. A grandmother speaks to a family of spiders in “not the problem,” forming a kinship with them that she is unable to achieve with her own granddaughter in her final days. Crabapples and approvals dominate the mind space of an associate at Berryman Consultants in “two angels.” Several birds and an extinct monkey are resurrected in “the best deal.” This section is charming, considerably lighter than the descent—despite tackling death, heartsickness, and monsters.
Now, after we’ve descended fully into the pit, flopped along for a bit on our bellies, and been pulled out arm over arm by a kind stranger, I am going to suggest something daring. After having gushed over the merit and clarity of the section titled clearing, I’ll say I’d like to cut it out of the book altogether. Then, I would turn my scissors to the descent and create a new space for us to walk around in the clearing before the ground opens up beneath us and we fall into the pit. This is a controversial move I approach with more than a little of my own skepticism, as I would hesitate, again, to advocate for changing a book’s form. But it is something we can all practice at home—and it is a practice which would allow us to avoid ripping out stories from the descent with our teeth as we go.
My approach to reading short story collections tends to be similar to my approach to listening to music: I want the whole album, I want it start to finish, and I want it to mean something. I want it to add up to something more than its parts. Without a doubt, It Had Been Planned and There Were Guides achieves this on all levels. But I will be perfectly honest: I think if I had been tackling the collection as a fresh reader and not also as a reviewer, I would have stopped after “call me silk,” and that would have been a shame. So here is where you, as readers, have a choice to reorder the tracks, to pick out favorites like “not the problem,” “the best deal,” and “check and chase” and reread these often, to make the collection your own. Sometimes, this is what a book demands of its reader; sometimes, that is what it allows. - Carolyn DeCarlo
Links to Work Online
Roebling at The Collagist
House Hunt at The Masters Review
Songbun Song at Joyland Magazine
Not the Problem at PANK Magazine
All She Had at Hobart
Free Baby at Corium Magazine
“but her hands are miraculous” at The Reprint