Someone Who Will Love You in All Your Damaged Glory: Stories, Raphael Bob-Waksberg (Knopf 978-1524732011, $25.95, 256pp, hc) June 2019.
Back in June IndieWire published an article listing the best TV shows of the last decade. BoJack Horseman was ranked number four behind three deserving and ground-breaking productions: Breaking Bad, Fleabag, and The Leftovers. BoJack Horseman, though, could easily have finished in the top spot. The story of a horse, the eponymous BoJack, once the star of a hit TV show in the ’90s, now, two decades later, wallowing in the residual remains of his fame, is not just one of the best shows ever made – animated or otherwise – it also portrays the most frank and unsettling depiction of mental health I’ve encountered. Given my deep and abiding passion for the series, when it was announced that BoJack‘s creator, Raphael Bob-Waksberg, was publishing his first short story collection in June, Someone Who Will Love You in All Your Damaged Glory, I picketed the Locus office (sat in front of my computer) and demanded (via a polite email) a review copy. Thankfully Locus delivered and I can say without hesitation that the collection surpasses my impossibly high expectations.
In the majority of the 20 stories that comprise the collection – a mixture of vignettes and longer pieces – Bob-Waksberg brings a fantastical and absurdist attitude to the nature of love and (predominantly heteronormative) relationships. The first of the longer pieces, “A Most Blessed and Auspicious Occasion” is a perfect example, a rom-com farce involving the torturous planning of a wedding set in a world where paganism (and its associated rituals) is the dominant faith. It’s incredibly funny, delivering lines such as “if you don’t sacrifice at least thirty-eight goats, my mom’s not going to come”; and “if you don’t have a Shrieking Chorus, why are you even having a wedding?” and my favourite: “sometimes desperate times call for punching a eunuch in the face so you can steal his giant silver egg and use it as a blunt object.” Equally side-splitting is the collection’s penultimate piece, “More of the You That You Already Are”, a bizarre love story set at a historical theme park called Presidentland, where the employees cosplay as the Presidents (with the requisite massive foam head). Dressed as Chester A. Arthur, our narrator spends his day explaining the Pendleton Reform Act to disinterested tourists. He’s also besotted with Emika from Wardrobe. Sadly, those feelings are unrequited as she has fallen for a new addition to the Park, a drooling, groaning ten-foot-tall behemoth, constructed from the genetic material of the founding fathers. I’m not nearly doing this hilarious, strangely touching story justice. It’s not all about the gags though. In stories like “up-and-comers” where a group of friends become superheroes, their powers triggered by alcohol, and “We Men of Science”, which involves a doorway that opens to an opposite version of our reality, Bob-Waksberg looks at relationships that gradually become toxic, whether it’s because of fame, fortune, and copious amounts of alcohol, or the obsessive search for an impossible, perfect marriage.
Throughout the collection, there’s a flair for the experimental. We see this with shorter pieces, such as “Lies We Told Each Other”, which details a relationship through a (partial) list of the fibs shared between a couple, and “Lunch with the Person Who Dumped You,” which describes different types of “break-up” lunches, including the “No-Hard-Feelings Lunch” and “The Loaded-Weapon Lunch.” The best of these is “rufus”, a story about love, companionship, and understanding told from the unique perspective of a dog. Although I’ve never owned a canine (or any pet for that matter), Rufus’s haughty, ego-driven view of the world seems very much on point. “At first I did not care to discern meanings of ManMonster noises, because why should I bother? I am creature with rich interior life; I should waste time trying to discern meanings of grunts and whines from ManMonster?”
It’s the more mundane pieces, those that don’t feature a genre element or are less formally inventive, that prove to be the most powerful stories in the book. They include “These Are Facts”, an uncomfortable narrative about a teenage girl who, during the family holiday, reconnects and develops strong, confusing feelings toward her step-brother, and “The Average of All Possible Things”, which describes the narrator’s psychological fallout when she is rejected by her boss after a brief affair. The best of these, and probably the strongest story in the collection, is “You Want to Know What Plays Are Like?”. It’s a gut-punch of a tale where the protagonist attends her brother’s new play only to discover it’s a fictional account of their sibling’s suicide. As a narrative about trauma told through art and a family torn asunder by a devastating tragedy, it’s confronting, but what elevates it is the tired, exhausted voice of the narrator, a woman who lacks the mental energy to fully engage emotionally with what her brother has done.
There’s an observation in “We Men of Science” that almost sums up each story in Someone Who Will Love You in All Your Damaged Glory: “it’s not what we do that makes us who we are. It’s what we don’t do that defines us.” It’s a sentiment, simple and true, that I’d expect from the person who created one of the best TV shows of any decade and who has now written a tremendous debut collection.
Ian Mond loves to talk about books. For eight years he co-hosted a book podcast, The Writer and the Critic, with Kirstyn McDermott. Recently he has revived his blog, The Hysterical Hamster, and is again posting mostly vulgar reviews on an eclectic range of literary and genre novels. You can also follow Ian on Twitter (@Mondyboy) or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This review and more like it in the August 2019 issue of Locus.
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