Heavy Levity: Courtney Harler Reviews Alex Behr’s Planet Grim

A potent mix of short stories and flash pieces, Alex Behr’s debut collection, Planet Grim, offers a darkly joyful read. Behr’s overall approach to narrative style is both irreverent and witty, while her narrators themselves are often both self-effacing and self-deluding. From the first two lines of the first story, “White Pants,” Behr establishes an unabashed intimacy with the reader: “I’m envious of anyone who can wear white pants. I’m much too broad and slovenly” (9). On the surface, these twenty-eight stories ring out with a raw, honest kind of heavy levity, if such exists. However, beneath the surface of her words, Behr also adeptly explores much weightier themes.

In particular, Behr revisits the motif of the broken parent-child bond again and again. In “Wet,” a divorced mother tries to reconnect with her pre-teen son: “I make a snow angel. The metaphor fails. The son stomps it out” (28). In “The Courtship of Eddie’s Father,” a birth mother must resist the advances of the adoptive father, who seems to misdirect his devotion (37). The narrator in “Teenage Riot” feels estranged from her home life, but can’t articulate her loss: “I want a dog. I’d name him Fish. I want something to love” (43). Even the obese colonist in “My Martian Launderette” tells his therapist, “I wish I had a dad” (126). The beauty of these stark moments, of these deceptively simple lines, is that Behr doesn’t try to explain away the sorrows of living—she just lets them be heard. Thus, on a second or third read, what is seemingly sketched becomes indelibly etched when readers fully comprehend the pain of these characters. As Behr’s crackling prose surprises and delights, readers can also hear foundations crumbling, can see her characters fighting to find new ground underfoot.

Drugs and casual prostitution threaten to destabilize many other lives in these stories, but such desperate acts are also compassionate acts, acts that try to alleviate hurt and suffering. And Behr doesn’t romanticize the overdone idea of “bad” life choices—she keeps her prose wry and fresh, giving readers deeper insight into human strife. In “Fairyland,” Theresa swipes a condom of drugs from a dealer and brags to her supposed “little sister,” “It was just a hand job. So easy. You could do it” (52). Though Theresa’s advice is disturbing, her intent is encouraging. Likewise, in “The Passenger,” a lovesick guy takes a strange girl home when she gets too high—she says her “bones are softening” (63). The guy licks the girl’s eye, but stays true to his love, the elusive Royann. In this story, Behr, a musician herself, presents a punk-rock tale of honor; some characters fail the test, but the narrator still strives: “She knew her bones were dissolving in her body. I wanted to know that feeling, to put it into music” (64). This empathetic final line, like many in this collection, seems to sing out and resonate of its own accord.

In truth, some of Behr’s flash pieces read much like enigmatic, disjointed song lyrics, or like tripped-out moments in time that the narrators can’t recall quite clearly enough to relate. For example, “What Do I Get?” experiments with point of view—readers must consider the “I” and the “you” on a somewhat fluid basis. “Sentient Times” also stretches its narrative strength by pairing its first punchy line, “Evidently the cat shat behind the couch” (131), with its last baffling line, “I like to munch and pee” (132). These flash pieces are certainly fun to ponder and revisit, but perhaps the longer stories in this collection are ultimately more gripping, and subsequently, more satisfying. Long stories like “The Garden” and “The Scorpion” hold their edge throughout, while flash pieces like “Hospital Visit” and “Sex Bomb” serve more as glimpses, or vignettes, which, while still bold and biting, feel comparatively limited in scope and arc. One notable exception is the wonderfully cheeky “The Shrew of D.C.,” which, given its historical context, seems to expand as a flash fiction rather than contract.

In a recent interview included below, I asked Behr about her choice of flash pieces for the collection. She responded by citing fragmentation and disintegration as inspiration: “I wanted short pieces that were like opening a door: that fear: what is inside?” When I mentioned broken family bonds, Alex wrote, “When I was married I felt I had tentacles from myself to my husband and son and perhaps that stifled them. So maybe in writing I’m looking at my faults.” This type of frankness forms the core vigor of Behr’s stories—while her characters struggle to stay whole, they enliven us with their crude intensity, their failed efforts. If the stories of Planet Grim offer open doors, they are doors that swing inward and smack outward, waking us from our meandering stupors.

4.5/5 stars

Planet Grim

Alex Behr
7.13 Books
October 12th, 2017
222 pages

CH: Congratulations on the publication of your debut collection! In Planet Grim, you’ve included both traditional short stories and more experimental flash pieces. Some of the flash pieces read more like vignettes, contained tightly within themselves, though they revisit common themes. In the initial drafting, what drives the scope of your stories? In revision, what allows you to let a piece settle into its own form?

AB: Leland Cheuk, an old friend from a writing workshop in the Bay Area, told me he wanted to publish a book of mine on his new press for debut authors: 7.13 Books. I had two manuscripts done: short stories from my grad thesis and a memoir. Since 7.13 focuses on fiction, I shelved the memoir for now. I trusted Leland to understand my sense of humor, approach, and neuroses. Now he really knows them.

The longer stories are mostly written from my grad school days or earlier, so they have the veneer of much agonizing and reworking. (I hope it’s not too apparent.) I had about four stories that Leland and I decided either were too similar to others or didn’t fit for another reason, so I had…a problem. I’m not prolific. I took a flash fiction class and read hybrid books that inspired me. I like music that brings in chance elements or strange sounds, and I wanted to bring that sense to the book (I also contributed to fanzines long ago, such as Bananafish, that had an anarchic spirit—blending fact/lies). Thus, short pieces, diary stuff, quotes. I can’t write in all voices/backgrounds that interest me, so I included found letters.

When I was putting together the later pieces I was playing many of Prokofiev’s short pieces from Visions Fugitives, which echo each other in harmony and rhythm, yet go through intense changes in mood and tempo. My piano teacher tells stories about them: I have notes comparing one to the KGB and one to Chaplin and one note that says, “Fear is a tool that keeps us in line.” I’m sure those pieces influenced me.

And the breakup of a 26-year relationship in June 2015 and subsequent divorce in 2017 (and ex’s departure to China for a year) fragmented my life. I was in a band with my ex and we were parents together. I was lonely. I included stuff from my notebooks that expressed disintegration. I couldn’t write a novel (I tried—a couple of pieces are from that stalled novel). I couldn’t write a long short story (I didn’t want to). I wanted short pieces that were like opening a door: that fear: what is inside? But it’s a pause, a taste, that I hope connect to others.

CH: You have a wonderful knack for last lines. Do they come to you like bolts from above, or do you suffer and bleed over every word? In general, effective short story endings are required to be “surprising yet inevitable,” but I’m specifically curious about the actual words on the page here. What makes those final parting words work so well for you?

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Behr’s First Notes for “Wet”

AB: If I write in a notebook when I wake up, without distractions, I can come up with phrases easily (or if I’m in a class responding to a prompt: that social pressure). I used to think authors needed a complete book in their heads before starting, like you’d insert a token, open a plastic box, and retrieve the fully created plot, setting, characters. Or writing a story for experts was like dropping two quarters into a metal tampon box: out comes the perfect wrapped item for instant gratification. (Now that I’m into menopause, I get that same pleasure from cheese.)

Words activate parts of the brain much as if you were experiencing the same sensation or action in real life. Lemon / <instant spark>. Erotica: same. Writing by hand brings blood flow and neural activity to parts of the brain that might not be as active with typing onscreen. It has to do with hand movements (activates parts of brain connected to thinking, language, healing). Since I associate writing in a notebook with writing in a diary (which I’ve done most of my life), those phrases that you like (thank you) come out without much effort.

CH: Many of your characters seem brazen, but they are broken beneath all their bravado. Often, bad choices result from a lack of stability at home. You avoid moralizing these situations while still emphasizing their cause-and-effect nature. When parents and children cannot bond, cannot bolster one another within society, they strive to find belonging in self-destructive ways. They pursue unhealthy romantic relationships, or turn to drug abuse or even casual prostitution. Like the doodle art on your title page suggests, your characters seek love in a world of grimness, and they are often devastatingly unsuccessful. Now that Planet Grim has been published, how do you see these themes informing your work?

AB: Well, some of the themes or character actions—like casual prostitution—I wrote humorously, because I thought it was ludicrous to reduce a human interaction to a hand job (yet it’s also intimate and vulnerable). It’s funny, crass, and profound (why else are we here?). As for parents and children not bonding, I didn’t make that connection, but I see it now! Maybe I was searching for an accessible conflict. Maybe it’s isolation I often feel glommed onto that primal connection. I’m not sure. When I was married I felt I had tentacles from myself to my husband and son and perhaps that stifled them. So maybe in writing I’m looking at my faults.

CH: Where can fans find more of your writing? Might you discuss any current or upcoming projects?

AB: I have links on my website http://alexbehr.com to other writing.

I’m taking a poetry class with Matthew Dickman this fall at the Attic, which is a writing center down the street. The end result is a chapbook. I’m into small projects. I’m also writing a bunch of brief spectacles (connected with the occult), which stemmed from a Share event curated by authors Kathleen Lane and Margaret Malone. Examples (minus occult part):

  • The Archie Spectacle: 1. Archie snorts dandruff. 2. Archie eats someone’s pubes. 3. Archie snorts a rubber ball he cut up with a pencil. 4. Archie licks dog crap. It is a dry one. He gives it a nice lick. 5. Archie swallows someone’s spit. He has a lot of friends.
  • The spectacle of the mother-in-law. She has cream cheese in her hair. Vodka yogurt sunrise. Her husband gets angry. She isn’t filling the pickles correctly. We flip through old auto mags in the breakfast nook. She throws the turkey gizzard at us, hot from the pan.
  • The spectacle of a woman, a stranger, wearing an “I love my husband” t-shirt with an arrow pointing left, but to the left is only the ocean.

And…the memoir? (Is anyone still reading this?) After reading Sherman Alexie’s memoir, You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me, and David Smalls’ graphic memoir, Stitches, the past week, I’m daunted by how much my memoir lacks in comparison. I’m resisting pouring on an intellectual casing or inserting an easy gimmick for it to stand out (I have no hawk in my life). I will probably return to my memoir now that I’ve written more hybrid works. Secret world would involve a YA book, a novel, and collaborations with an artist. But I’m so distracted who knows if they’ll happen. A friend wants to cast me in a play. I was a failed middle school thespian.

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Behr & Her Son; Photo by Bellen Drake