Susan Coll

Book Review
A Writer Winks at Her City

Every movie I watch now is a movie about an entire cast of people who seem to not have cancer, or at least this is, to me, its plot,” Anne Boyer observes in The Undying, her recent Pulitzer Prize-winning inquiry into cancer. The 25 stories in Truthtelling have nothing, or at least very little, to do with cancer. And yet I found myself thinking about Boyer’s line while I followed Lynne Sharon Schwartz’s charming, eccentric and occasionally cranky characters as they race around New York City, riding buses and subway trains, popping into the apartments of sick neighbors, going to movie theaters and live performances, wandering in leisurely fashion through grocery stores. The plot, to me, is the opposite of illness. The plot is pre-pandemic life.

That we tend to read myopically, or at least through a lens informed by individual circumstance, is fairly obvious, but that makes it all the more surprising, midway through this collection, to discover one particular pre-pandemic gem. “A Few Days Off,” first published in the literary journal Agni in 2018, features a woman who wakes up one morning feeling burnt out, “as if the flame of energy had waned and finally succumbed to the ambient air currents.” She calls in sick and holes up in bed with magazines and tea, which she finds so enjoyable that she calls in sick again. And again. The more she withdraws, the more she wonders why she had been so determined over the years to go about her business. “Everyone dashed here and there, but was there any good reason for so much activity?”

It doesn’t take a global health crisis to learn to find solace in retreat, yet it’s difficult to read this as anything but prophetic. In fact, many of the stories in this collection read a bit like allegory, as the title, and particularly the subtitle, imply: Stories, Fables, Glimpses. These stories may skew to traditional narrative form, but many are best read as musings, ruminations or parables.

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Susan Coll works at Politics & Prose Bookstore and would like to emphasize that this essay should be shelved under fiction. Her novel, "The Stager," will be published in July.
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