--DO YOU KNOW ANY GOOD SECRETS?
“It is to books that I owe everything that is good in me.” Maxim Gorky
Gorky could interchange “books” with “stories” or even “words,” “sentences” perhaps. After re-reading Karen Stefano’s story collection “The Secret Games of Words,” I’m made to think any of these could be true.
“In medias res” is a Latin term writers are supposed to know and act on. It means, to begin in scene. Stefano does this expertly and always. Each piece begins with a sizzle or a quandary or a question, all of which make the reader want to know and learn and feel more, which is at the heart of great story-telling. Opening lines like these are utterly compelling:
--For no good reason we hate her.
--Mother won’t let me in the water.
--The day our stepmother, Ruthie, served us meatloaf sandwiches for lunch, you took a bite and pretended not to gag.
--Every night when I called my mother she asked the same question, “What are you making Mark for dinner?” though she knew I worked days and didn’t cook.
--Lodged in that space between dreaming and waking, a shrill noise ripples inside my ears.
--The doctor asks if I’ll agree to take some tests.
--It’s my turn to deliver the eulogy.
--Dear Dr. No.
…and on and (graciously) on…
To read a first sentence like these and to not read on requires the kind of willpower a junkie might need to abstain from overlooking a coffee table lined with rows of cocaine or horse or ...
It’s a rare gift to be able to create situations, fraught with danger, apprehension or misgiving , to make them fresh and vibrant and utterly new, yet Stefano does this with an apparent ease again and again even as the reader feels his or her skin itch, his or her heart beating like a jack rabbit.
Many of the stories center around maternal relationships, broken relationships, or a rapport turned thread-bare over time. The way in which Stefano is able to break open the yoke of parent-child fragility and characterize it truthfully—even through hurt and heartache and mundane annoyance—is captured so realistically as to make the reader pause and reflect on the mirror placed in front of their own face, their own life, their own misdeeds, regrets and wishes.
The collection is striking for many reasons, if not most for its complexity. Things are excavated, issues laid to waste. Each story contains its fair share of damage and frailty and yearning and obstinacy, told in exacting prose. No single story will let the reader sit in an authoritative or comfortable state, because there are spikes and jukes aplenty throughout that hit your funny bone, your scalp and skull, your aorta, all in kind.
In one piece we see the tag, in bold: Love has disappointed me. It’s such a stark statement, and yet so relatable. Who, if anyone, has been so lucky to escape this realization? Stefano takes us deep inside our own hormones, showing how duplicitous thought and emotion can be, aided and abetted by dopamine or concocted images of perfect, unstrung love, and she does so expertly.
Even the titles of each story are deliciously tantalizing:
IN DEFENSE OF MEMORY LOSS
THE MAN ON THE SIDEWALK BELONGS TO ME
HOW TO READ YOU FATHER’S OBITUARY
THE ASYMMETRICAL SCIENCE OF LOVE
SARA TURNER’S SUBLIME TIMELINE OF GRIEF
THINGS I TRY TO DO WELL
It’s a good ride throughout, one that will leave you wondering about your own fidelity, your own sphere of joy and loss. Maybe you’ll be gasping by the end. If anything, you certainly won’t be bored.
Reading “The Secret Games of Words” is like reading something you wish you would have written, were you brave enough to. It’s like peeling back your skin to the seventh layer and saying, “I am laid bare, but here I am.”