In Suzanne Rivecca’s story collection, Death Is Not an Option, characters make their way through murky situations and scenes that are heavy and humorous all at once. Every moment has the awkward potential for disaster and the characters are terribly concerned about the moral impact of their choices. The result is that all these young women are on the verge of a catharsis and about to find a new version of the truth.
“Death Is Not an Option” follows high school senior Emma. She feels disengaged from her classmates on a year-end group retreat, a regular response for her around her peers. From freshman year on, she dreams of leaving the Midwest and her religiously-confining surroundings. She wants to go to college far away from Catholics, but finds herself in fits of inexplicable tears every time she thinks about the move.
Emma is constantly resistant to give in to these moments of raw feeling. The truth, as Emma comes to see, is that she is on a different page, farther back in the story from the rest of her class. Even her friends have moved ahead of her: “They have all simultaneously crossed over to the land of those with outward feelings, soft and malleable and unashamed, pure and cushiony as marshmallow fluff.” (38) When during a sharing circle, she finally starts to cry, and her classmates and faculty think “At last, at last,” (39) their misunderstanding of her grief is another wound, another moment sharply articulating her desperation. All along she has told herself that escape will save her; the new truth reveals that there is no such escape.
Certain stories in Rivecca’s collection hold more emotional depth and clarity; in fact, as a reader, it is easy to see the writing improve in confidence and complexity after this initial piece. This title story starts weakly because of many pop-culture nods littered throughout the text. One example of this is the “Lush sounds of Free Willy” (37) mentioned half a dozen times. These references cheapen the tale of a young girl’s startling revelation that she should “go back to Muskegon with the Jesus freaks and die a thousand deaths every day because that is the only cure for [her] incessant, debilitating, and constant sense of futility.” (40) The story ends with a transformation, although highly dramatic, and relays her humbling and bitter acceptance of a new future.
As the collection moves forward, the stories become fully developed, intimate disclosures of guilt and fear. Rivecca’s voice becomes mature and reflective while retaining its droll tone. “Look, Ma, I’m Breathing” explores the duality of a childhood lie and a true account written about that lie. Isabel, the title character, has written her memoir and considers it a truthful framework in which to access her past. “She wanted people to squirm under the weight of it, knowing they couldn’t bring up her past in any but a literary context, knowing that, eternally she had the last word. A last word with a large print run.” (157)
Isabel needs to box in the truth, trap it in words on a page. Although as we learn more about her, we find that this tome of truth contains moments of what might have been, rather then what actually happened. With a fictionalized ending, her memoir, about a lie, is partially imagined itself. Does this make it any less true? Her moment of clarity, after nights trying to pin down a subject for a new book, is shared: “[She] knew that nothing would ever come out of her more purely or clearly than things like this: these distilled episodes, these illuminated lamentations, sculpted in all the right places, these testimonies of harm.” (173) This final insight acknowledges that she is the person in the pages of her writing, though she felt different and separate before.
And sometimes, the truth is there from the beginning and we watch the character shove it out of the way several times before the final confrontation. “None of the Above” begins with a young teacher, Alma: smart, thoughtful, and committed to her students’ growth and well-being. When a young boy, Peter, in her class exhibits signs of abuse, she starts to investigate. While Alma struggles to identify the source of his injuries, throughout the text the reader can see several clues leading up to the boy’s revelation that he shares a bed with a tiger:
For a while she [Alma] organized arts-and-crafts activities in the half-conscious hope that he would unwittingly betray himself through a nonverbal medium…. But he [Peter] drew sunny skies and houses with smoking chimneys and large striped animals frolicking on the lawn. Alma knew the signs. Abused and neglected children were (a) withdrawn; (b) developmentally delayed; or (c) ‘acting out,’ a term she despised for its jargony inexactitude, but she knew it when she saw it. And Peter was none of the above. (194)
Alma ignores the fact that Peter is not exhibiting any behavior of an abused child aside from the markings on his body. Eventually, she confronts Peter and asks him to share the truth with her. “Peter… all you have to do is tell me the truth. You’re not going to get in trouble just for telling the truth.” (205) Prophetic lines as we find at the story’s end. When Peter divulges that he has a pet tiger cub, Alma hears something completely different. “She sat there and trained her practiced, tempered gaze on Peter as he looked her in the eye and informed her, without preamble or disclaimer, that he’d been attacked by a tiger. Actually, he never used the work attack.” (205)
Where does this moment leave Alma, in her search for answers? Angry and disbelieving. “What it came down to was reliability of perspective; she trusted no eyes but her own.” (209) But her own eyes keep missing the facts. In the events that follow, tension escalates because Alma is about to find the truth manifest from what she understood to be a tall tale. The most prescient moment is when Alma reveals her true feelings and faces the tiger:
She felt terror…dutifully and more or less truthfully. Terror for the boy’s safety and for her own. But in those first few seconds, she had not been afraid. She had felt a dark drumbeat of uneasy commiseration. Not between her and Peter, but between her and the tiger…. She had looked into the tiger’s face in broad daylight and thought, aghast, What are you doing here? (222)
Alma’s discovery, not an elephant in the room, but a tiger, sickens her more than her grisly imaginings of wrongdoing by Peter’s parents. “None of the Above” is my favorite story in the collection for its subtle insinuations and heavy metaphor. When Alma sees the tiger, the glaring truth, she reacts: “And she felt that the least she could do was touch the animal, that she owed Peter that, and when she was close enough she extended her hand.” (221) She confronts her new understanding, as frightening as it is, that she should have seen the truth all along. This is the strongest story, perfect for wrapping up the collection.
Rivecca has written thoughtful fiction here, with fully developed characters seeking candor and revelation. In all these stories, Emma, Isabel, Alma, and the others, realize that the truth is floating around the edges of our moments, a ghostly presence about to show itself.
Carrie Schindele-Cupples is a librarian in Oregon and runs the Springfield Library Foundation Author and Music Series, a venue for promoting authors and connecting them with the community. Her favorite thing to do is read aloud to her husband and dogs, pretending she is on Selected Shorts.