Towards the beginning of author Susan Hope Lanier’s debut short-story collection, a fake-blonde “little bitch” of a high school student named Justine leans in close and taunts another girl: “… if you fuck a terrorist, then you are a terrorist.”
Taken out of context, it would be easy to mistake Lanier’s choice of words for the stylized shock-and-awe that Lena Dunham uses to strike a collective nerve on her TV show Girls. But in Lanier’s hands, a sneering barb from one sexually naive young woman to another carries the full weight of the moment pressing down on both parties—a rich subtext rife with reverberations of uncertainty, anxiety over being ridiculed by peers, reluctance to admit deepening feelings for a lover and pressures of sticking to one’s convictions in full view of a crowd.
Thankfully, the characters in The Game We Play come from an entirely separate universe than Dunham’s. If they sometimes spit their lines out like caricatures, it’s only to conceal the highly believable tangle of emotions stirring inside. In fact, this compact collection proves there’s still plenty of room in the popular lexicon for cutting, savvy art that doesn’t contrive or overplay its edge.
Unlike Dunham and her kind, Lanier keeps herself too busy observing other people to stare at her own navel for long. These short stories, in fact, don’t draw exclusively on her own personal experiences. Yet her command of gestural shading gives the unmistakable impression that what we read is written by someone with a sharp eye for what goes on around her—and for human interaction as a whole.
Throughout most of The Game We Play, Lanier builds dialogues from non-verbal cues so faint that even her characters can fail to pick up on them. Consider the following muted exchange between a father and son:
“It’s late,” Pedar said. He stood at the kitchen counter, pushing a bag of tea into his mug with the back of a spoon. He looked old sipping tea like that, with cream that turned the drink gray like his short, dead hair.
“Zan is already sleeping,” he said.
Baraz hated how his father called Mom wife in Persian. Zan is asleep. Zan cooks what I like. Zan always listens. It sounded old-fashioned coming from a man who married a white woman.
“Mom hates tacos,” Baraz said, spotting the cold tray of food on the kitchen table. He wiped the sweat from his forehead with the nook of his elbow, then slid his hand back into his pocket.
“Still, she made them,” Pedar said, but all Baraz heard was: Zan does what I ask her to do. Why don’t you?
“It’s three a.m.” His father pulled out his chair at the kitchen table and sat, nodding at the empty plate across from him.
To portray conversation with such a high degree of realism, an author has to be able to capture what isn’t spoken aloud. When Lanier’s characters speak, it feels they’re walled in by things that, for a variety of reasons, they cannot bring themselves to say. Lanier’s emphasis on body language causes her stories to brim with a lifelike tension that belies a more deadpan, matter-of-fact delivery. Clearly, this work required the author to place herself, at least for the sake of imagination, in someone else’s shoes – as opposed to the Dunham method of spinning narcissistic cartoons and choking off any possibility for genuine character development.
Lanier could have easily set forth in that direction. Roughly the same age as Dunham, the writer hails from a Northeastern collegiate milieu populated by culture-savvy, Internet-weaned millennials from more-or-less affluent suburban backgrounds, people who spend way too much time on Tumblr. (I can say this with some assurance. Lanier and I frequented the same Rochester social circle before she moved to Chicago to earn her MFA in creative writing from Columbia College.)
Like Dunham, Lanier charges her writing with the drama of what it means to be adrift in post-college waters as adult angst and professional inertia set in like the first frost of oncoming winter. The Game We Play actually suffers a little when Lanier tips her hand too much about her own background, relying on 1980s nostalgia and musical references to shed light on characters who deserve better than to be relegated so strictly to their author’s time and place.
Still, Lanier, an author fiercely opposed to that hoary old bit of writing advice that instructs aspiring authors to write what you know, dares to put herself in shoes she’s never walked in. This includes, most notably, a series of male characters whose perspectives she inhabits rather gracefully even when she doesn’t formally narrate from their points of view.
Whether her protagonists grapple with emergent love, unwanted pregnancy, eating disorders, illness, death, gun-toting nervous breakdowns, or recreational activities like baseball games and sex-toy shopping, Lanier again and again renders their circumstances with tenderness. She never threatens to undermine the precise composition of her prose. The Game We Play displays a humane, even generous spirit that stands in stark contrast to the relentless self-referentialism flooding the contemporary cultural landscape.
On the other hand, Lanier favors a word economy so sparing that even the barest bones of a given story line can remain un-divulged. She links all the shorts here with the premise that the book’s characters take part in some form of game together—hence the title. Of course, the title implies another layer of gamesmanship. Generally speaking, the book’s subjects are both magnetized and distanced from one another by various forms of longing. They then downplay these longings as a basic survival strategy.
Lanier doesn’t always spell out these yearnings, and she concludes several shorts before they reach any sort of resolution in the traditional sense. She also has a tendency to train her lens on incidental details that hover at the margins of central action, a well played technique that causes a reader to savor the few plot points she does reveal. Nonetheless, Lanier manages to get across the information necessary to hold a reader’s interest and even to provoke thought once he puts the book down. And as much as Lanier leaves (actually, carves) out of her phrasing, it’s no small feat that her writing reads with such effortless flow, as if it took zero strain to arrange her sentences.
Her deceptively breezy prose may pour off the page as easily as water from the tap, but Lanier’s unassuming way with words actually requires great finesse. Fluent in the unvarnished dialect we speak in our own thoughts, Lanier adroitly avoids the trap of trying too hard to sound clever. Instead, she relies on cutting wit, keen powers of observation, and an easily swollen heart to reveal awkward truths. She renders them almost deliciously painful.
Without glamorizing youthful malaise, her flawed but endearing characters bump—and sometimes grind—against each other, leaving the kinds of bruises that turn into lingering regret and inconvenient wisdom. In The Game We Play, Lanier manages to be understated and unflinching at the same time.
She strides forward in this confident, highly compassionate debut.
Saby Reyes-Kulkarni covers books and music for Paste and is a regular contributor to MTV Iggy, Alarm and Nashville Scene. He hosts the literary podcast Page By Page and the music shows Feedback Deficiency and Let The Good Times Grind. He is also the director of Lay My Burden Down, a documentary about LGBT members of Rochester’s African American Christian community.