Because I Wanted to Write You a Pop Song by Kara Vernor / Split Lip Press / 75 pages / ISBN: 978-0-9909035-7-4
“… this is what boys did to girls”
My dad used to say there were two ways to enter the sea: you walk in slowly, bracing yourself against the cold. Or you run and dive and before you know it there’s seaweed in your hair and your mouth is full of salt. You’re in before you can change your mind. I’ve taken this as the best kind of advice to open up a short story as well.
In Because I Wanted To Write You a Love Song, Kara’s openings are like jumping into cold water. You’re in before you know it. They are fast and quiet; six-foot waves in the middle of the night. In her first story, she writes: “When you walk into a party with blood on your face, well, people will think it’s your blood.” In another she writes, “And then one day your molester turns up as a contestant on Wheel of Fortune.” She’s not dipping you into her story, she’s pushing you in. She’s blowing you a kiss and then your head is under water.
In these stories, men are bodies and heavy hands and shifty words. In “She Could Maybe Lift a Car” boys can “pin guys in unitards in less than twenty seconds.” In “Ferris Wheel” they tell their girlfriends they look “a little slutty.” They scare girls to touch them or push them around to teach them lessons. And sometimes girls take it. And sometimes they don’t. In these stories, the “lucky” women get a kind of sweet revenge that is best served cold, bloody or quietly (“I look ready to open up the door to a house full of guys I haven”t dated.”) – their revenge is often a strange form of peace.
Kara’s collection comes with a personalised playlist that suits the lyricism of her prose (each line could basically be a line in a Hold Steady song or another pop-rock, big-ass-chorus anthem) as well as her characters – each one looking for something like love or hope or faith or sex, just like all the best songs. Her playlist is an apt and fitting friend to this collection, letting you linger with each of her stories like nostalgia. Kara describes the main character in the title story as “more of a Born in the USA gal” and I love that – like you can pin who she is by which Springsteen song she’d jam to the most. The relationship between music and stories in this collection says a lot about her characters: their restlessness; their rock-n-roll appetite and lonely hearts.
These stories can be read in the time it takes you to tie both your shoelaces, each one tight and compact; every line smoothly and expertly wound tight into this gorgeous, heady knot. There is fierceness and tenderness, too: “Four Hands” (one of my first introductions to Kara on PANK about a year ago) is funny and heartbreaking. It’s about growing up, working shit out, mean girls and good girls (“I’m onto this, how the longer your hair is, the meaner you are”). It’s simple, and it’s this simplicity that tears you apart – like in “Prom Queen Found In Lake,” an American fairytale with a dark, twisted thread. As in most of Kara’s stories, this one scratches at darkness. Prom queens want to be prom queens and boys want to be with prom queens: “He liked red lipstick and she wore red lipstick. He liked Southern Comfort and she shoplifted a bottle.”
In her accompanying playlist, Kara talks about the “commonplace smallness that so often precedes men’s violence” and it’s echoed in “Prom Queen Found in Lake”: the small, everyday things that end badly for women at the hands of men. The cost is high and I”m left having to close the book, breathe, and try really, really hard not to cry. Kara shoves a mirror of the world into your face and you have no choice but to look at its dirty reflection staring straight back at you. Things do not end well for women, not all the time, these stories say.
“Lesbionic” has it all: burgers, cute-counter-girls, girls loving girls, boys who drive trucks, tattoos, teenagers driving around just because, fingers getting chopped off. It’s hilarious and revealing: you know Kara’s got a thing or two to say about being young and American and a little stupid (“I’m nursing a Coors Light, reciting lines from Anchorman and The Hangover with Gabe Allard, a guy known for being able to put his own dick in his mouth”) without ever being didactic or obvious. She threads these beautiful, kick-ass lines throughout, like: “I’m pear-shaped and she likes apples. I’m dirty blonde and she likes them clean” and “I imagine her in an old-timey photo, cigarette dangling from her mouth, pistols at her hips.” Sexy, funny observations that make her a master of flash; of getting in, getting out.
“Thirty-Four” and “David Hasselhoff is From Baltimore” are two of my favourites (a hard call in this collection). Both deal with being lost and then found again – or at least you hope so. “Thirty-Four” is about falling out of love, itself its own kind of freedom: “When I stepped out of the Flying J, I hadn”t learned anything that would help me leave the man I love while I still loved him.” I can”t think of anything more honest and beautiful about that line. It would be good, her character thinks, maybe just to get away, “No Donnie and his Irish coffee breath, no preoccupation with the uneveness of his face,” and find a new home with “the sun baking my skin, my flesh breaking open.” She skims her characters” dreams and simultaneously flirts with fantasies everyone has had at some point, about stretching their legs in the sun, leaving home, starting again. But she addresses these dreams with a blunt realness, like in “David Hasselhoff..”: “You arrive finally on the California coast, and even though this is northern California, you’re expecting tan, leggy blondes and barrel-chested surfers. You’re expecting red swimsuits and lifeguard stations and blinding white sand. You’ve brought your own red swimsuit and you’re expecting California to deliver.”
Kara writes with sass, intuition, humour, hope, anger and wanderlust, but there’s nothing grand or jazzy about her stories. Nothing exaggerated or stretched. Ending “Because I Wanted To Write You a Pop Song” with “David Hasselhoff is From Baltimore” may be the best thing about this collection – this story tinkered in the back of my mind for days. It’s peaceful and hopeful, but a little sad, too – proof that small, simple things can make a difference, like floating naked in the sea, or turning the radio on for the first time in days, or listening to your favourite pop song.
Be prepared to read this collection like you would the lyrics to your favourite songs – memorising each line like you don’t want to let it go, feeling a little of yourself fall away with every word. Then doing it all over again.