Resentment, cats, and their accompanying traumas crop up again and again in R.L. Maizes’ We Love Anderson Cooper. Characters on both sides of disaster are like wind-up toys — Maizes turns the key tight with her succinct setups, then allows each story to proceed with methodical, disquieting inevitability. There are no wasted words, and it is this matter-of-fact tone along with clear, clipped sentences that drive Maizes’ tales. Most of the stories deal with the direct aftermath of trauma or hurt, and it is in this immediacy that we get to know the characters. Or at the very least, we get to know them at their lowest — for often Maizes’ characters are not given much life beyond these brief and distressing moments.
Maizes’ interest lies in what follows upheaval(s), and she seems to suggest we can be good if allowed to chug along, but when circumstances beyond our control interfere (errant golf balls, an unexpected birth, the death of a loved one, i.e. everything and anything), we don’t hold up. In “No Shortage of Birds” Charlotte’s mother replaces her dead father with a parakeet, and Charlotte’s resentment paired with her mother’s love for the bird unfolds painfully. And how will an unhappy former consultant, who finds some satisfaction as a pizza delivery man, deal with the guilt of injuring one of his daughters? As you may have guessed, not charitably. Maizes characters are never surprised by themselves or their own reactions, but they are almost always disappointed.
Maizes’ occasional dips into magical realism fit in seamlessly in this series of bizarre premises. In “Tattoo”, a tattoo artist is capable of appearance-altering work. The series of rapid fire plot developments takes you somewhere unexpected but ends in sentimentality, making for an unsatisfying whole. Regardless, the thought experiment remains — what if a tattoo artist did work that surpassed the best plastic surgeons? — is intriguing. In “The Couch” Maizes lets the story be exactly what it is and nothing more, an exploration of the question, “What if a therapist’s new couch had unexplainable effects on patients’ happiness levels?”
The quirky specificity of Maizes’ characters and plots are always engaging, but it is a welcome change when the stories extend beyond vignettes to give a glimpse into the greater life of a character. In the titular story, Markus derails his bar mitzvah ceremony with an ill-timed personal revelation. It’s a cringe‑y, heartwarming coming-of-age story, but Maizes gives us more than the immediate ego of a thirteen year-old boy when she writes: “He had at least managed not to recite [Leviticus] in temple. That might be all he chose to remember about his bar mitzvah service. It would be all he chose to tell”. Though this is a rare and gratifying look at a character beyond the circumstances presented, the other tales don’t suffer from any sort of lack regarding life beyond the story’s moment.
The collection is small enough that the recurrences — capricious cats, people jealous of their pets, ungrateful dependants — don’t feel repetitive, and instead the continual exploration of the same themes feels playful. Endings are sometimes expected, but the stories are far from monotonous, and many a premise of Maizes’ unsettling romps stay with you long after finishing.
Russell Janzen is a New York-based writer and a dancer with the New York City Ballet.