Mary-Beth Hughes, Double Happiness

To many people, writing is about implication—scaling back, paring down. It’s the things you don’t put down on the page that count. When this philosophy is put to really good use (as in your Hemingways, your Carvers, or even your Tao Lins), it’s hard to argue with the results.

But what happens when minimalism goes wrong? What happens when a piece of writing is so vigourously pruned that plot, character, and cohesion itself wind up on the scrap heap, leaving nothing behind but an inscrutable stump?

These questions are answered seven times over in Double Happiness, the disappointing and frequently mystifying debut collection of short fiction by New York’s Mary-Beth Hughes. A couple of the nine stories here are followable on a sentence-by-sentence basis—not coincidentally, these are the ones I liked. The others, however, might as well be in point form.

The collection is haunted by a few choice ghosts: divorce, pain, and men that are alternately distant, adulterous, and abusive. In “The Aces,” a hotshot magazine editor sits on a plane, fantasizing about an old affair and cursing his pregnant wife’s newly affected maternal glow. In “Pelican Song,” a modern dancer helps her mother flee a violent second husband by telling her how to shimmy out a bathroom window. In the title story, a 9/11 widow finds newfound purpose by pushing a book cart around her children’s old Catholic school.

From afar, these premises sound auspicious enough. But when you’re knee-deep in the ensuing stories, such discernible images are nowhere to be found. It’s not that the language is too flowery or convoluted; it’s that the simple logic that connects one sentence to another is almost wholly absent. Stray observations and details are parachuted in without clear owners. Entire characters wander through the scene, their importance implied but never explained. The stories in Double Happiness left me feeling like the victim of some kind of head trauma: I stared at the pages, recognizing the individual words but unable for the life of me to put them together.

Only two times is Hughes willing to drop the cryptic tone and put her story first. “Rome,” an aching story of a third-grader and her father’s day trip to New York City, gets in a few choice twists—and here the consequences of adultery are given the most weight, when the father has an awkward run-in with his mistress in a department store. And “Guidance” deploys some expert misdirection. Over 25-odd pages, we realize our airhead model/narrator has no idea she’s about to be kidnapped by a disgruntled bodyguard.

Overall, though, the frustration-to-pleasure ratio is way too high. The prose cuts too many corners, and the characters often fall into the same uneasy dynamics. This is how the narrator of “Guidance” sums up her husband, a millionaire more than three times her age: “He meant well. The whole subservience thing just a personailty glitch.” The same could be said of nearly all of Hughes’s male leads.

Look at that quote again. Isn’t there supposed to be a “was” in the second half? Usually I’d chalk that up to a proofreader’s error and move on, but in this case I once again sense the work of Hughes’s overactive hedge-clippers.

Grove Press, 224 pp., $14, paperback

(review also appeared in SEE Magazine, July 1, 2010)

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