Article Content Warning: minor spoilers
From Raphael Bob-Waksberg comes a poignant and surreal short story collection that traces the ways we fall in and out of love. The 18 short stories in the collection are certainly never boring as Bob-Waksberg pushes the form to unusual places with stories that are told through stanzas (“the poem”) and numbered lists, such as a list of locations in New York (“The Serial Monogamist’s Guide to Important New York City Landmarks”). These experimental stories tend to focus on the mundanities of daily life, including break-ups, lunch invites from your ex, and fights with your romantic partner.
Meanwhile, stories like “The Average of All Possible Things” and “You Want to Know What Plays Are Like?” do away with the more unusual storytelling methods to explore the isolation following a breakup and the ridiculousness of watching a play about your family drama on stage.
Both stories stand out as the strongest of the handful that are grounded in realism, blending humor with surprising reveals that get to the bone of what it’s like to lose someone you love. These stories provide incisive and cutting looks into being alone in the world and grieving lost relationships.
“You Want to Know What Plays Are Like?” feels particularly comforting in the way it explores these themes. Virginia, our narrator, goes to watch a play written by her brother, Dusty. The play acts as a way for Dusty to retell their dysfunctional family history, putting on stage their alcohol and drug dependency. When Dusty confides in Virginia after the play, there’s a moment of tension between what could happen and what actually does:
“You look at him. And the play version of you would hug him. The play version of you would say, ‘Dusty. Whatever is going on with those two, I promise you it is not your fault.’
But the real version of you just looks at him and offers a sympathetic little nothing of a shrug, which somehow is supposed to communicate all the things that need to be communicated.”
Throughout the story, there is constant conflict between what does happen and what doesn’t. Bob-Waksberg uses that tension to simultaneously reveal our disappointment with reality and shine a literal spotlight on our tendency to get stuck within the “what-if’s” of imagining an alternate world—whether in the form of a play or in the privacy of our minds—in which we make the right choices.
Because of the intimate and revealing way that Bob-Waksberg writes, his stories can feel like ones that you would hear over a cup of coffee or a phone call with a friend. The characters feel like people you know and that’s exactly the point. The relatability of his characters makes you root for them, even see parts of yourself in them. Bob-Waksberg uses characters who believe they are unlovable, doomed to be alone or ordinary, to help us create needed distance from our own tendencies to be our worst critics. So when the characters come to the realization that they aren’t unlovable, that they can move beyond their tragedies to find love, we too realize that just like the characters, we are capable of loving and being loved.
The collection also delves into fantasy and sci-fi with “We Men of Science,” “up-and-comers,” and “More of the You That You Already Are.” All three stories consciously indulge in long-standing genre fiction tropes, including interdimensional travel technology, superpowers, and morally dubious genetic engineering. However, Bob-Waksberg is never distracted by the bells and whistles of these tropes and focuses on the relationships that foreground all his stories.
In “More of the You That You Already Are,” for instance, the narrator finds himself distracted not just by his ongoing crush on a co-worker, but also the possibility of losing his job as an impersonator of the 21st U.S. President, Chester A. Arthur, to a lab-grown combination of the first ten U.S. presidents. This surreal premise is grounded by the very real financial and familial struggles that hang over the narrator. Not only does he have to worry about losing his job to a Frankenstein-like creature, but he also worries over Ramona, his sister, and her struggle with cancer throughout the story.
Bob-Waksberg does this in most of his stories, trying to distract us with humorous and fantastical set-ups before taking sudden turns into the universal heartbreaks that plague us all. Whether it’s about a romantic or platonic relationship, every story is overflowing with the (sometimes thorny) love that comes with the unfairness of loving and losing someone.
When the narrator in “More of the You That You Already Are” is faced with choosing between his job and family, we know exactly what choice he’ll make, even as the stakes of his job get higher. Instead of being the hero and saving the creature from an evil corporation, he decides to stay by Ramona’s side at the hospital as she struggles with her cancer. The narrator realizes then “how loving someone is kind of like being president, in that it doesn’t change you, not really. But it brings out more of you that you already are.” Rather than an action-packed sci-fi story about corporate and medical misdeeds, it’s really a love story, one about being there for your family when they need you most.
Someone Who Will Love You In All Your Damaged Glory reminds us that we can get through life in spite of the hardships and tragedies that hound us day after day. Raphael Bob-Waksberg tells us that on the other side of our depressive moods and irritations is the knowledge that no matter how unlovable or damaged we are, love is still out there for us.
RAPHAEL BOB-WAKSBERG is the creator and executive producer of the Netflix series BoJack Horseman.
Someone Who Will Love You In All Your Damaged Glory can be purchased here.