Reading a novel on the subway is such a tease; novels are for plane trips, for the Metro-North to Connecticut. But a collection of short stories—now there’s a form that facilitates brief dips into an alternate reality. You finish the story and get off the train, and the real world seems both slightly duller for not being as expertly crafted, and slightly brighter, your senses newly sharpened from your literary travels. At least that’s the idea—the ideal.
Patricia Engel’s debut collection, Vida, is not quite the ideal, but it’s good for a week’s worth of commuting. Her stories are linked by the persistence of a central character, Sabina, who speaks in the first person in all but one of the stories (“Green,” narrated, inexplicably, in the second person). Sabina’s parents are from Columbia, but she was born in suburban New Jersey, “in the one town that only kept [Latinos] as maids,” where “all the mothers were doughier versions of their husbands.” The family is financially well-off, and Sabina’s mother is marked as an outsider as much for her designer outfits as for her dark skin and thick accent.
Throughout the collection we glimpse Sabina at different ages and in different locations—coming of age in New Jersey, visiting relatives in Columbia with her family, drifting in her twenties through New York, then Miami (where Engel herself lives). She is ambivalent about her heritage—and with good reason: “My parents and their friends,” she observes, “all congratulated themselves for having American-raised kids who only had to see Colombia on vacation”—but she doesn’t understand people who don’t know their “family lines five generations wide and ten generations back.” For the most part, by accident or design, she surrounds herself with people from Latin and South America: a Cuban boyfriend named Nico who complains that Sabina is “oppressing” him when she asks where he’s been all night; shirtless Argentineans who live fifteen to a room in an apartment building whose “lobby is a revolving stage of drag queens, college kids, hookers, and the men who love them.”
One of the stunning powers of the short story as a form is its ability to create a world that it cannot contain—a world in which questions are left unanswered but not unanswerable. It’s a puzzle piece in which, if you look hard enough, you can see a picture of the completed puzzle, a part in which you can see the shape of the whole. Engel’s choice to return to the same characters and locations would seem to enhance their suggestive powers; instead, her stories feel oddly pat, self-enclosed. “Refuge” ends with Sabina coming to the conclusion that a relationship is over—“And I will decide without his knowing, without ever saying, with only an amended gaze that he will never notice, to let the story end”—a neat trick, because the story itself ends there, but also a slightly hostile one. The reader is suddenly placed in the position of Sabina’s by turns emotionally unavailable and emotionally abusive boyfriend, and summarily cut out of her life. The mournful beauty of “Cielito Lindo,” in which Sabina cheats on her boyfriend with an ex—who had cheated on her during their relationship with the woman he’s now with—is undercut by a similarly unsatisfying ending: a description of sex whose “famished fury makes me think this might be the last time.”
Throughout, the narrator’s tone never varies: cool and detached, her voice is appealingly blunt. But it’s also occasionally weighed down with world-weariness that neither author nor character has quite earned. Sabina certainly has reason to be emotionally distanced, cynical even—the first story, “Lucho,” begins with her uncle’s murder of his wife; in “Refuge,” she calls in sick to her job as the receptionist at an investment bank located in the World Trade Center, on 9/11; in “Vida,” the title character is a Columbian transplant who worked for a year as a sex slave in a Miami brothel. Nevertheless, Sabina is still in her twenties, and her disaffected tone lacks nuance. It feels, eventually, put on, petulant.
The epigraph to Vida is a quote from Jean Grenier essay collection Islands: “In each life, particularly at its dawn, there exists an instant which determines everything.” Engel is best with instants—sharp descriptions of small moments in which something, maybe even truth, becomes fleetingly visible. “He was sixteen and I was fourteen,” she writes of the newly arrived Lucho, in the eponymous story, “which meant that we could be friends on our block but had to ignore each other at school.” In “Refuge,” a thirteen year-old girl asks Sabina what she does for a living and she thinks, “I’m only twenty-two. I don’t do anything for a living except smoke cigarettes and throw my heart around.” She describes her mother and her mother’s sister—her mother’s only relative in the States—clinging “together like schoolgirls, linking elbows as they walked, talking for hours about people I didn’t know,” her own alienation and her mother’s loneliness equally palpable. But in between these revelatory moments there is, too often, a seemingly endless, affectless narration of events. One begins to crave the connective tissue that Engel’s bold strokes have largely hacked away.
In a widely read and hotly debated essay in the London Review of Books last year, Elif Batuman, in the course of taking MFA programs to task for a variety of sins, wrote, “Literature is best suited for qualitative description, not quantitative accumulation. It isn’t an unhappiness contest, or an unhappiness-entitlement contest.” Vida is much more than an “unhappiness-entitlement contest”—for one, Sabina is in the peculiar position of being financially entitled, unhappy and Latina all at the same time—but it’s undeniably weighted towards quantitative accumulation. The moments of revelation, and Engel’s voice—which remains compelling despite its sometimes problematic monotone—pull the reader through, from home to work and back again, but one longs for something slightly more unstable, more surprising, less confident. Sabina, for all her professed lack of direction, speaks with too much certainty; the best authors write with less.