It’s a cliche that children are full of questions, but certain types of questioning — far from the innocent realms of “why is the sky blue?” — mark the end of childhood. Katie Chase, whose new book “Man and Wife” came out this week, has produced a short story collection that balances largely on the edge of that turning point.
“Man and Wife,” the title story, won the Pushcart Prize and was chosen as a Best American Short Story in 2008. Katie Chase sat down with State of Wonder’s April Baer last week to discuss the book and the larger forces that shape its characters’ lives — forces we will all recognize well.
In Chase’s critically askew version of the American suburbs (“Man and Wife”), child-marriage intervenes on a young girl’s play-time with her friends and Barbies. In her riff on Hoovervilles (“Refugees”), visits from a charismatic guru stir up a teen girl’s memories of her long-lost sibling and threaten to expose dark secrets in her family. And in her take on Detroit (“Creation Story”), a preteen has her eyes opened to the meaning of the deserted city her family lives in, an urban wasteland that is regularly burned by arsonists and demolished by officials.
When asked how far away we, as readers, are from the places she has created, Chase replied that we’re not as far as we might like to think.
“My intention is to sort of exaggerate a phenomenon that I see as already existing, there’s already the potential there for it,” she says. “I just like to make it bigger, louder, and more literal.”
While the themes — child-marriage, wife-napping, how girls face the status-changes that come with womanhood, family strife during economic and social collapse — may be bumped up a notch, Chase pens her stories in an understated, realistic prose style that renders it all “normal” for those characters and that world. That presumed normalcy is like a highlighter. The strangeness of the cultural expectations, rites and roles presented nearly jump off the page at a reader who can’t possibly accept them as normal.
“I really want to have that surface that is unassuming,” Chase notes, “so that some of the strangeness of what is happening in the story can seep in instead of yelling in your face.”
For the stories’ young protagonists, growing up isn’t a natural result of growth and time. Girlhoods are disrupted by womanhood and all that it brings. Marriage, far from being about “happily ever after,” is a rite tied closely to dread. In “Every Good Marriage Begins in Tears,” a young man plots to kidnap a girl he has never met, but believes he is in love with, in order to make her his wife.
“I discovered the best way for me to show how strange some of these rites are, how strange some of these expectations are,” Chase says. “Through the child’s eye you can show a gradual realization that maybe there are other ways out there to approach life. And so a lot of my stories sort of lead up to that moment for the character, where they begin to see the larger world.”
Katie Chase will be at Powell’s City of Books on May 12 at 7:30 p.m. reading from “Man and Wife,” out now from A Strange Object.