Fic­tion

Sarahland

  • Review
By – April 26, 2021

Sam Cohen’s extra­or­di­nary debut col­lec­tion of short sto­ries begins in a women’s dorm where all of the res­i­dents are Jew­ish — many named Sarah — and the boys are every­where, out in the open, an infes­ta­tion. Like cock­roach­es, they’re most­ly vis­i­ble at night.” Cohen’s lan­guage and her arrest­ing use of sim­i­le show her pow­er as a writer, but it is Cohen’s uncon­tained, vivid imag­i­na­tion that makes Sarahland unusual.

The con­ceit that holds Sarahland togeth­er is that Sarah is the name of all the main char­ac­ters, and through nam­ing a the­mat­ic whole emerges. Cohen wild­ly diverges from the expect­ed and the ordi­nary. Sarahland is at once provoca­tive, heart­break­ing, fun­ny, and fan­tas­ti­cal. It may cohere around a lit­er­ary con­ceit, but as a col­lec­tion it maps new ter­rain and hails an extra­or­di­nary voice in Jew­ish and queer literature.

The first three sto­ries, Sarahland,” Naked Fur­ni­ture,” and Exor­cism, or Eat­ing my Twin,” engage in more real­is­tic rep­re­sen­ta­tions of the lives of young adult Jew­ish women. In these sto­ries, Cohen demon­strates her pow­er as a writer, and as a cre­ator of imag­i­na­tive spaces.

In Dream Palace,” Sarahland turns to the fan­tas­ti­cal. The Sarah in this sto­ry encoun­ters her ele­men­tary school bul­ly in a dream palace that blends sub­ur­ban mall and super­store land­scapes. Then, before a read­er can right one­self and poten­tial­ly return to the ordi­nary, Cohen drops two midrashic sto­ries, The First Sarah” and Gos­sip.” The First Sarah” retells the sto­ry of Abra­ham and Sarai, replete with the chang­ing of the name to Sarah, through a queer, trans lens that is incred­i­b­ley well wrought. Gos­sip” revis­its the sto­ry of Adam and Eve, with anoth­er com­pelling queer twist.

Sep­a­rat­ing these two midrash is the spec­tac­u­lar Gem­stones.” Pro­tag­o­nists Ry and Jamie dis­cov­er The Sarah Machine,” which allows them to embody famous Sarahs — Sarah Paul­son, Sarah Schul­man, Sarah Sil­ver­man, and more. Set at a car­ni­val, this sto­ry is a wild ride with delight­ful queer takes on pop­u­lar cul­ture. By this point in Sarahland, the automa­ton, sub­ur­ban Sarahs have bro­ken the script. They are now sub­ver­sive and pow­er­ful, nar­rat­ing new, urgent stories.

Cohen drops Becom­ing Trees” near the end of the col­lec­tion, a short sto­ry with the pow­er to alter a read­er. An aging les­bian cou­ple, Jan and Sarah, decide they do not want to become a man or a woman, rather they want to become trees in the midst of the eco-apoc­a­lypse. The sto­ry of their trans­for­ma­tion is heart­felt and arrest­ing. When they are final­ly root­ed in the ground as trees, they real­ize, the mush­rooms around us are whispering…we hear that Moth­er Earth is dying, and that we are all work­ing togeth­er to fig­ure out how to revive her….” On par with Char­lotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yel­low Wall­pa­per,” a short sto­ry from the ear­ly twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, Becom­ing Trees” is the para­ble for our time.

Sarahland is a book to read and savor; Sam Cohen, a name to watch.

Julie R. Ensz­er is a schol­ar and poet. She is the author of four col­lec­tions of poet­ry: Avowed, Lilith’s Demons, Sis­ter­hood, and Hand­made Love, and is the edi­tor of The Com­plete Works of Pat Park­er and Milk & Hon­ey: A Cel­e­bra­tion of Jew­ish Les­bian Poet­ry

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