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Universal Recipients

by Dana Bath

What if short story authors were forbidden to create characters – particularly women – who cannot get over themselves? And what if there was an embargo on finely crafted little tales of anxiousness, dread, chill, numbness, and dry mouth? What if nobody in the world of small-press fiction ever had an elliptical, cross-purposes conversation with their lover over morning coffee? Could you live without someone in a short story talking about the texture of their skin? An even better question might be: how come so many short fiction writers offer up the same clichéd, writers-workshop imagery?

One problem is this: short fiction is by definition too brief to rely on much of a plot, and so falls back on character and texture. Therefore a certain amount of small-palette stuff – lone protagonists, snapshot-like impressions of places and times, amplified responses to teeny events, minimal dialogue – is to be expected. I can relate to self-involved protagonists and their tense musings as much as the next person – as long as they bring something new to the party.

There are 13 short stories in Universal Recipients, each of which is built around the point of view of one young(ish) woman. Dana Bath’s Elizas and Lisas and Leahs are pensive, uncertain moderns – teachers, waitresses, travellers – trying to make sense of the muffled signals of everyday life. The stories catch these women as their paths take a decisive turn: for example, in “Be Well, Whatever” a young girl goes about her daily routine on the sweltering day her cousin moves out, powerless to do anything about the atmosphere in the house and the sadness of her blood kin. Blood as metaphor, as connecting fluid, and blood as scary, physical fact is prominent in the stories, as are various maladies and injuries. “A Kettle” is about a curious love triangle that is disrupted when a man must be nursed through an accident involving boiling water.

Bath knows how to mix things up effectively. The stories move deftly and confidently from context to context; from, say, a group of people playing ping pong in a basement in Japan to a woman reading The Bangkok Post in a Thai hotel room. Stylistically, only about half of these short pieces are spangled with off-putting preciousness; the other half just about repair the damage. This means that for every bad-poetry riff such as, “I stopped fumbling with continuity a long time ago…. I fasten myself to people with hinges, not with bolts. I have enough surfaces for everyone.” Bath manages to compensate the reader with a perfectly observed, affecting moment: “The gibbon grasps my T-shirt and looks up at me, its black-rimmed eyes huge holes in its white face. I place a hand gently on its head. It’s soft, like black feathers on a baby chicken.”

All in all, then, Universal Recipients has real merit, but too often falls victim to the tainted short-story plasma that afflicts the genre.