"I'd begun to invent a history for her, or several histories, and this, I think now, was what appealed to me most—that she served as a blank slate upon which I could test out different versions of how a person might end up as she did, old, destitute, alone."
In Scott Nadelson's short story "West End," from his just-released collection Aftermath, 22-year-old Amy peers out the window of her ramshackle apartment, watching an old woman limp by, imagining explanations both glamorous and mundane for the woman's lonely existence. Amy's are the naïve and arrogant thoughts of someone to whom nothing particularly bad has happened yet, but they also serve as a decent description of the collection as a whole. In story after story, Nadelson investigates how and why people end up alone: how relationships stutter and fail, and well-meaning adults end up living alone in shitty apartments in the wrong part of town.
Apartments, in Nadelson's stories, aren't so much homes as they are way stations for people whose lives aren't going as planned. Amy's apartment is old and cramped, the track bed so rusted it no longer slides into the wall. It's tacitly understood that when Amy gets her shit together she'll move on, but in the meantime it's where she lives, half her clothes in boxes, as she avoids breaking up with the boyfriend she no longer cares about; as she crushes on her gay neighbor (living upstairs in an apartment much nicer than hers, he on the right side of the line between vintage charm and simply old); and as she waits for news about her father, recently diagnosed with colon cancer. In another story, a man leaves his wife and takes the cheapest apartment he can find, where he imagines furnishing his bedroom with a mattress dragged in off the street; then there are the tiny Brooklyn apartments where careless young people live "right on top of each other, with no room to move."
By the logic of these stories, a person's home reflects the state of their lives. (One family has their home literally broken when an old man drives a car through it—it should come as no surprise that the two parents eventually divorce.) Nadelson is particularly interested in the moments when the physical and emotional parameters of a life shift—the moment just before or just after someone moves from a house into an apartment, from the marital bed to a lonely full-sized mattress. Many of the stories dwell in bleak uncertainty, in trial separations and recent breakups, in times where decisions must be made despite life's refusal to provide any assurance that the decision will be the right one.
But these thematic beats, hit over and over again, begin to dull into a drab procession—like your friend who won't stop talking about her bad breakup, six months, a year, a year and a half later. Nadelson lives in Salem, and Oregon's weather isn't a bad metaphor for the cumulative effect of this collection: A rainy day here and there never gave anyone crippling seasonal depression, but 10 years of drizzle can build into a massive case of the SADs. In the same way, Nadelson's thematic preoccupations are initially insightful, but repetition eventually dulls their emotional impact, creating a dreary, indistinct wash of broken relationships, crappy apartments, and sad young people. The overall effect is of a collection of drafts of the same story, different in their particulars but with a dragging sameness at their emotional core. ALISON HALLETT