By Madeline Cash
Clash, 160 pages, $16.95
There is a popular school of literary short fiction that could be loosely described as “hapless people drowning in the garbage culture.” There are different flavors: Sometimes the garbage is cultural ephemera; sometimes it’s a more significant form of political or economic waste; sometimes the people are more awful than hapless. There is the drug version, the sex version, the environmental-apocalypse version, and the voices can range from antic to numb. But the brass ring goes to the stories that most effectively convey how fucked up it all is. George Saunders is the standard-bearer for this type of writing, and his influence can be seen across the literary landscape.
On one hand, the garbage culture is the world we have got, and this sort of work resonates with the despair and outrage we feel about our corporation-controlled lives. On the other, it’s inventive on the surface but crude in its underpinnings. “The awful feeling one gets after reading a very good New Yorker story” is a powerful sensation, but an over-familiar one. The feeling is based not on fresh observation or original ideas, but on someone else’s construction.
To make something new out of the garbage culture takes a delicate hand—as Nietzsche wrote in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, “the butterflies and soap bubbles and whatever is like them among us seem most to enjoy happiness.” Likely it’s easier to buck tradition from a small or very small press, as is the case with the collection of stories Earth Angel by Madeline Cash, out this month from Clash Books. The stories are set in a digital-dystopia Los Angeles and move at the quick pace of the TikTok generation. The cast of characters repeats in different guises, and overlaps with real people in Cash’s life. A final story, “Autofiction,” gives an idea of the book’s flattened, humorous, rapid-fire delivery: “This is my magnum opus. This is everything I’ve consumed since last Thursday. This is my Facebook password: IHATECONNORSIMCOX. This is a medical condition taht I hvae” (typos in original).
The predictable landing place for work like this is despair, but Cash does something unexpected. “Autofiction” is a sarcastic mash-up of random elements: a Bible verse plus its Greek-script translation; a list of people who appear in the book; a handful of personal anecdotes; a headline in Japanese; footnotes; commentary on the soul of the universe; and a retelling of the plot of the movie Jurassic Park, which the narrator watched “biweekly from the ages of 8 to 11 and again recently in a hotel room while my boyfriend did ketamine off a mirrored tray.” Yet somehow it lands on sweetness: These are soap bubbles and butterflies, or they can be if you make them funny. The narrator has a boyfriend; misfortunes are shared; God has been left behind at Christian surf camp but is still out there in the digiverse, available in every language Google Translate has to offer. Maybe the awful world will all work out. We don’t really know what’s going to happen.
Cash, with her friend Anika Levy, is also part of the print-magazine renaissance; together the two run indie-lit Forever Magazine, and the hopeful spirit of this movement also seems to infuse the book. If you don’t like what’s out there, make something yourself. If mass-market fiction is processed, formulaic, and predictable, write something more interesting and publish where you can.
Perhaps the finest story in the collection is “They Ate the Children First.” Its narrator, a young woman with a baby, treats trivial and grave matters with equal seriousness. One moment she worries about needing a mouth-guard to prevent her teeth-grinding; the next she frets that the child’s father, Nick, is going to leave her. Across the street, comic mirror-image neighbors fight in random, silly ways—fighting with a flip-flop, pelting each other with limes from their tree. The narrator first plays a ghoulish prank on Nick, trying to make their lives more fun, and then suggests they relationship-build by consuming a popular “research chemical,” the drug deal for which goes awry. There are many of the standard elements of the hopelessness school in this story, but its loopiness allows humanity to sneak between whacks of the flip-flop. Nick doesn’t leave her. The neighbors, who are also the drug dealers, steal the couple’s car and all their money and take off in the night, but they kindly leave the baby’s car-seat on the lawn at the story’s end. Cash has a way with last sentences.
The digital age is flattening, alienating, and overwhelming, and a strategy of resistance is often to return to our core humanity. But that strategy can also be the bars of the cage, setting up an opposition between what’s contemporary and what’s human. Cash’s work escapes this logic. The protagonist in the story “Hostage #4,” plays video games, has a mishap with nail trimming scissors, and takes edibles on the bus. She is both send-up and sincere. Her age bounces from 13 to 24, when “everyone on Instagram has been sexually assaulted, and I’m allowed to roll my skirt up as short as I want now because of #metoo.” She notes that her mother’s parents immigrated from Ireland, lived through famine, and war and came to America with “only $36 in their communal pockets.” But instead of seizing on their virtue, the narration dismisses them a few sentences later in another glorious ending: “But the difference is that they were nothing. The difference is that I’m a Lutheran and an American and a hostage, perennially updating like a smartphone, barreling forward into the profound depths of the universe.” She makes it sound not so bad.
Cash’s stories are a reminder of what fiction can do when it’s allowed to break the rules, express its moment, turn the despairing or the banal into something better. The last line in the story “tgif” is a masterpiece of this kind of alchemy: “It’s happy hour, and for that hour we’re happy.” The end.