Short Stories Long
Local author's new collection flows like a novel
Photos by Michael Hanlon
To many born-and-bred Rochesterians, California seems like a faraway dream: beaches, movie stars, and palm trees in the south; hippies, fog, and Silicon Valley in the North. But “NoCal” and “SoCal” are more than their stereotypes. Like the rest of the country, California is a state with a complicated human landscape.
Robert Glick, an associate professor of English at Rochester Institute of Technology, explores these landscapes with humor and tenderness in his new collection of short stories, Two Californias (C&R Press, 2019).
“We tend to see California in kind of a Hollywood way, and it gets overly simplified tremendously into tropes. My hope is just that by letting tiny sections of the underbellies of California exist in a complex way, that people will start to break down or question the kind of monolithic way we think of California where the hippies live in San Francisco and the surfers live in Southern California. Those are small bits of much larger phenomena. Even the underbellies I touch are one small part—a tiny, tiny part—of the tremendous and incredible diversity of California.”
Although each tale in Two Californias can stand on its own legs, the collection reads as smoothly as any novel, with a thematic and emotional cohesiveness that keeps the reader turning the pages, wanting more.
Rachel Marston is an associate professor of English at the College of Saint Benedict & Saint John’s University in Minnesota. She was impressed with Glick’s collection and agrees that Two Californias is novelesque in its story order.
“Story collections don’t always feel like they have that sense of scope you might get in a novel,” she remarks. “So, when you read one like Robert’s, it really creates that feeling of being able to capture you and draw you in even as you change narratives and narrators, and it builds thematically. And that’s really rare, and I think therefore super exciting and a testament to his skill.”
While Glick touches on many themes in his collection—one that takes center stage is grief and how people cope with loss. His characters move through the grief that comes with death but also the pain of divorce, the uncertainty of illness, and the tenuousness of love. Glick says that he is interested in “how people negotiate and navigate the world that is largely unfamiliar to them after something happens. Grief is complicated, and there is often some bad behavior in that.”
But it isn’t a simple process for any of the book’s characters, and Glick successfully challenges the notion that grief is a linear or predictable step-by-step process. He tears apart not only the misguided idea that there are only two types of Californians who live along the western coastline but that human emotion—sadness, love, joy— is simple in any way.
“My hope is that there is a number of binary oppositions that are set up in the collection that break down this same way that the notion of California breaks down. One of them is how we grieve.”
Shena McAuliffe is an assistant professor of fiction at Union College in Schenectady who appreciates how Glick explores grief and love in his book.
“These stories erase what I mistakenly thought was binary: I lose track of what’s ‘high’ and what’s ‘low,’ of question and answer, of grief and love, which are, of course, inextricable in the end.”
Glick’s solid plots and astute insights are written with a beautiful attention to language and the lyrical. Some stories, like “Mermaid Anatomy,” are poetic in quality yet never lose a sense of direction or groundedness.
Melodic lines such as: “Remembering dimly that to save the mermaid from seafoam I must recognize her as the creature who saved me from the shipwreck,” (page 93) butt up against the fact that in the next scene the central characters are readying themselves to cut off the head of a Little Mermaid statue with a chainsaw.
The unexpected weaves its way through Two Californias and McAuliffe likens reading it to “eating a bowl of Fruit Loops while reading philosophy: the sugar melts on your tongue while your brain keeps spinning. But this comparison leaves out the heartbreak that always guts me in the end of Robert’s stories—or maybe heartbreak is what happens when you embody tough questions and humorous cultural critique in quirky, smart characters.”
Glick hopes to have his next book, The Paradox of Wonder Woman’s Airplane, done by the end of 2020. The novel looks at a white suburban family that have been sheltering themselves in their insular upper-class world. But what happens when things fall apart, and this protected life seems to spiral out of control?
The book will also be accompanied by numerous digital artifacts such as phone apps, hidden comments on an html webpage, and CAD drawings. It asks the reader to think about what it means to get the “whole story.” (Don’t worry—traditionalists can read the novel in its print form without exploring the digital content if they so desire.)
When he isn’t writing, Glick likes to spend time with his partner, professor and writer Anne Royston. He says, “it’s a quiet life. It’s not a very exciting story!” But if you run into him, ask him about his collection of barf bags, his classes on zombies and race, and being a wedding officiant. To learn more about Glick and his work and to get a sneak peek at The Paradox of Wonder Woman’s Airplane, visit his webpage, robertglick.com.
Christine Green is a freelance writer, teaching artist, and writing coach. Learn more at christinejgreen.com.