Certain American States: Stories by Catherine Lacey

The loneliness of certain American states is enough to kill a person if you look too closely

I come from a certain American state: Maryland. Before I first came to England 15 years ago, I’d never lived anywhere else. It’s the ninth-smallest state but has a little bit of everything – mountains, lakes and farmland; coast and bayfront; rough cities and pleasant towns; plus proximity to the nation’s capital – which is why it’s nicknamed “America in Miniature.” Brits say Merry-Land (it’s more like the name Marilyn, with a faint D on the end) and more than once when asked where I’m from I’ve heard in reply,“like the cookies?” No, not like the cookies!

Anyway, the characters in Catherine Lacey’s short story collection move through various states – Texas, North Dakota, Virginia, Montana – but the focus is more on their emotional states. Ten of the 12 stories are in the first person, giving readers a deep dive into the psyches of damaged or bereaved people. I particularly liked “ur heck box,” in which the narrator, troubled by the death of her brother and wary of her mother joining her in New York City, starts getting garbled messages from a deaf man. Whether a result of predictive text errors or mental illness, these notes on his phone echo her confusion at what’s become of her life.

Two other favorites were “Touching People,” in which a sixty-something woman takes a honeymooning couple to see her ex-husband’s grave, and “Small Differences,” about a woman who’s cat-sitting for her on-and-off boyfriend and remembers the place faith used to have in her life. Both dramatize the divide between youth and age; in the latter the cat is named Echo, a reminder that the past still resonates. Another standout is “Learning,” about a painting teacher with a crumbling house and marriage whose deadbeat college friend has become a parenting guru. (This one reminded me of Curtis Sittenfeld’s “The Prairie Wife.”)

Many of the stories question the possibility of ‘getting over’ what’s happened and posit, instead of total healing, a stoic determination to just keep going. In the title story, the narrator goes to see her godfather, Leonard, on his deathbed. She still doesn’t like him much; the trip isn’t about achieving closure but doing the right thing when you can. The same is true in “Family Physics”: Bridget had an explosive falling-out with her family when they came to see her accept her college Physics Award. Now that she’s back in touch with them everything isn’t perfect, but she sees how family life is always a mixture of entropy and rebuilding.

I prefer this U.S. cover. How about you?

There isn’t as much variety to the narration as I often like from a set of stories, but Lacey uses a range of storytelling techniques (or gimmicks, if one was being unkind) to keep things interesting. The first story, “Violations,” about a man whose ex-wife has published a story drawing on their life together, features run-on sentences that go over the page; “ur heck box” nests parentheses inside parentheses, up to three layers; “Because You Have To,” about a woman who’s counting her blessings even though she’s newly single and surrounded by feral pets, is in short sections separated by asterisks; and “The Four Immeasurables and Twenty New Immeasurables,” narrated by a woman who’s sleeping with a Buddhist monk, is in list form. Lacey also uses no speech marks, setting out dialogue in italics instead.

It can be tough to assess a story collection as a whole because the parts can range from hard-hitting to instantly forgettable. I didn’t always feel that each of the parts was necessary here; perhaps I would have been better off just sampling a few of the best stories? The problem, of course, is that you never know which those would be for you before you open up the book. There were quite a number of lines that rang true for me in Lacey’s work, but no more than a few stories that I can imagine myself recalling or ever going back to in the future. The book feels very much of the moment, though. If you’ve enjoyed recent work by Julie Buntin, R. O. Kwon, Sally Rooney or Sittenfeld, you might want to spend time in Certain American States.


Favorite lines:

“I don’t know what to do now, a state I am so familiar with it feels like my only true home.” (from “Because You Have To”)

“Anyone can visit a graveyard, no matter what they think, and every graveyard has been seen so many times there is nothing left in them for anyone to see and that is why we all must go and look, to see again what’s been seen again” (from “Touching People”)

“I no longer understand the state I was in back then (heartsick over the idea of Jesus the way that other girls were heartsick over the idea of River Phoenix)” (from “Small Differences”)

My rating:


Certain American States was published in the UK by Granta on September 6th; it came out in the USA on August 7th from Farrar, Straus and Giroux. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.

17 responses

  1. Very much looking forward to this, and your comparison with Sittenfeld’s ‘Prairie Wife’ has whetted my appetite further.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I daresay you’ll enjoy these stories as an existing fan of Lacey.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This sounds excellent. I 100% agree about the US cover, but then I tend to prefer US covers in general.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Me too! And I’m not usually nationalistic 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Looking forward to this (your mention of recent Sittenfeld sealed the deal). And I like the UK cover best…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I wasn’t sure the demure lady in the bathing cap matched the tone of the stories…

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Sure. I’m a sucker for books with swimming/water on the cover so for pure bookshop appeal, the bathing cap cover would reach out and grab me (I’m sure my swimming pool thing is not common!).

        Liked by 1 person

  4. It sounds like some of these stories were more sucessful than others. Overall though it seems like an interesting collection.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, I’ve rarely found a short story collection that’s strong the whole way through. I still have to force myself to pick up stories instead of whole novels.


  5. Sounds like an interesting collection and I suppose if the gimmicks were different in each story, that’s OK. I fear we match on our struggles with short stories, don’t we. Weirdly, I do love Elizabeth Taylor and Dorothy Whipple’s, but I think that’s because you can tell what’s going on and they are like novels in miniature, with no messing around and an actual conclusion …

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ah, I’m likely to get on with Elizabeth Taylor’s stories, then. My other problem is that I only like to read one or two stories at a time, so a long volume (an author’s collected stories, for instance) can take me forever to read, and my interest wanes.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I think so. There is a giant collected stories on Kindle – can you dip into one or two at a time in that way better than in a book? Otherwise there’s a lovely fat book that’s too fat to read, or oop individual volumes.


    2. Kindle’s not a bad idea for dipping into.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Ha, yes. I love how my English friend says “Merryland,” instead of “Marilyn”–or even “Merlin.” Collections are tough. It’s rare I love every story. Lauren Groff said something interesting in an interview, something to the effect that, altogether collections should offer up an overarching argument. I thought that was interesting.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ah yes, the very Baltimore “Merlin”! Interesting that you should mention Lauren Groff — I loved almost all of the stories in her recent collection, Florida, and did feel that there were very strong themes tying the whole thing together. It’s one of my few 5-star books of the year so far.


  7. I loved the quotations you shared. That’s the thing about short story collections – so often in the moment they are enjoyable but then later on I can’t recall a single one!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I tried to take good notes on all of these; I knew otherwise they’d blend into one or fade out of my memory quickly.

      Liked by 1 person

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