Things Not To Do

I will give short stories collections credit for the one way in which they destroy other books—they aren’t nearly as stressful as a 300-plus page novel.

Mind you, I read Things Not To Do, by Jessica Westhead, immediately after reading Do Not Become Alarmed. And I spent the entirety of that novel on the verge of a panic attack. So there’s that. There’s no time for that level of anxiety during a short story.

At least with a short story if I’m bored, or anxious, or worried about the characters I know the end is coming and I’ll be able to move onto an entirely new set of characters, the others forgotten in the flip of a page.

Westhead’s characters are a mess—zany, barely functioning adults who I wanted to shake my head at. Did shake my head at. They make big proclamations about their future. They obsess about what good parents they’ll be (and you’re reading, thinking: nope) and how their crazy career plans (escape rooms: nope) are going to make them rich. They make excuses for their horrible boyfriends or girlfriends (who made fools of them online), and agonize how no one appreciates their skills (because they are a wedding DJ). It’s easy to judge these hot messes of people. I commented that all the characters were just awful and I hated them for their blind optimism, their hardy dedication, their ridiculously over-inflated sense of importance. The way they couldn’t see their own absurdity. And then I had a horrifying realization.

Hello people. People everywhere. People I know. Me, probably. Westhead apparently has a knack for distilling the worst, most obvious qualities in people and twisting them just enough to make comedic fun of all of us. I nearly missed it.

In ‘Prize’, Westead starts a paragraph: “The thing about Allen is that when I was a little girl I was chubby, and I only ever wore one-piece bathing suits.” Allen doesn’t appear in the narrator’s thoughts again for another large paragraph. I read it twice before I noticed. And how often do we start talking about someone else but twist whatever we’re saying to be about ourselves, really? It was hilarious and cutting at the same time.

In ‘Things Not To Do’, Westhead writes: “Essentially all I’m saying, is just be aware, okay? Awareness is your responsibility as a social animal.”

Indeed.

Jessica Westhead was at Events 54 (How This Story Began) and 92 (The Afternoon Tea) at the 2017 Vancouver Writers Festival.  

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