Pee on Water by Rachel Glaser

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

At the conclusion of Rachel Glaser’s first story collection, the reader finds herself blinking fast through a crowd of images: bears eat trash; fur ruffles in wind; candles “coy and shy their hot face.” The reader is left with the slimming of a soap bar into a sliver of itself, and with the impression that what constitutes narrative has just had its boundaries renegotiated.

Pee on Water
by Rachel Glaser
Publishing Genius

These images derive from Glaser’s title story, “Pee on Water”; in fact, this is a phrase that is repeated throughout the story as a metaphor for human evolution (think the advent of toilets). The whole of evolution is what the narrative contends with; the story skips gleefully from epoch to epoch, recording the emergence of humans and our concomitant evolutionary companions. The result is a compression of images and time into an eight-page story that has no standard character or plot, and yet careens toward a conclusion that the reader is braced for: we know where this story is headed. It’s headed for us. This compact history achieves the goal of making human life a blip—albeit a blip that is lush with surprising sensory detail.

It is clear from the outset that Glaser intends to tinker with tradition: the opening story is arguably the most disorienting of the collection, starting as if it were a child’s tale, then shifting into a Little Women vignette, then into an imagined and highly colorful account of Louisa May Alcott’s lifestyle, before finally revealing, eight pages later, that the narrator of the story “The Magic Umbrella” is an old and battered copy of Little Women that lives in a rare books collection.

Glaser’s choice of this peculiar story to open the collection, and of Pee on Water as the book’s title, creates a sort of unapologetic, quirky joy for the whole endeavor. Joy, despite the gravity of some of the stories: in the Shirley Jacksonesque “The Kid,” a young, unnamed man finds himself making an unbearable decision about his pet at gunpoint; in the floaty, meandering story “The Monkey Handler,” a crew of astronauts in space with a monkey find their own desperate experiences distilled into the monkey’s sign language: “There are not trees. Not birds. Not Martha. Hungry. Cigarette please.”

Of this collection, there is a story that stands out as especially emblematic of the current day: in “The Jon Lennin Xperience,” Jason and his sister spend the majority of the story immersed in virtual reality. The sister dates an artificial Kanye West; Jason soon spends all of his time immersed in the life of “Jon Lennin” (spelled as it might be in a bootleg video game from China; Yoko’s character-name is spelled correctly). Jason as “Jon” navigates a hyperreality with a well-known ending—as readers we do not know how Glaser will bring it about, however, which draws us inexorably along with Jason. His sister experiences a similar but less violent end with Kanye: at the last level he leaves her, again and again, no matter how many times she restarts the game. Distressed, she asks her brother why she cannot stay in the game; Jason muses that the game makers perhaps did not intend the players to stay in their virtual worlds indefinitely. In an age such as ours, well stocked with virtual realities, and with blurred edges around what constitutes “real life,” Jason’s conclusion is resonant.

Glaser’s effort here marks a trend: for example, the speedy, clipped structure of Pee on Water’s title story is similar to that of Jonathan Safran Foer’s recent New Yorker piece Here We Aren’t, So Quickly and in “The Sad Girlfriend,” Glaser’s shattered arrangement tumbles through images and disconnected moments, pausing only to mention slyly to the reader, as an aside, “A story meanders without any discernible plot.” With these fragmented and challenging narratives, self-conscious nods to the authorial self, and image-rich studies in heart and heartbreak, Glaser’s collection both echoes and contributes to the literary mood of the day.