The Virginity of Famous Men by Christine Sneed
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I picked up this collection of stories from Christine Sneed the night she spoke to our writing group in Naperville back in September 2017. We had asked her to do a presentation for an hour at one of our regular weekly meetings. She proposed an outline for a talk “On Maintaining Momentum in Your Fiction.” We thought it would have some value for many of the fiction writers in our group. Alas, some were disappointed, and several felt the talk to be somewhat condescending and elementary. I don’t remember the word “momentum” being mentioned.
I grant it would be difficult for someone unfamiliar with the group to know what level of skill , what knowledge of literature the audience would bring. So perhaps Ms. Sneed can be forgiven for her compact high-school English lessons on character, conflict, plot and point of view.
Personally, I was interested in reading some genuine prize-winning literary fiction (as opposed to genre fiction, of which it turns out I am mostly guilty. Sneed’s fiction has won numerous prizes and acknowledgements, she teaches writing, and she directs the MA/MFA program at Northwestern University. So I wanted to learn from her stories. By Sneed’s own definition, literary fiction is character-driven fiction in which the character’s interior life is described and explored in a way that leads to an insight about his/her place in the world. The stories in “The Virginity of Famous Men” fit that bill pretty well.
They are not plot driven and don’t concern themselves so much with external conflicts. Take “Beach Vacation”, in which a woman ends up vacationing with her teen-age son at a resort where she discovers she really doesn’t like her kid very much. Well, rightly so, the kid’s a jerk, end of story. In “The First Wife”, that personage describes her marriage to a celebrity as it moves to its inevitable slow death. In “The Prettiest Girls” a Hollywood studio representative on location in Mexico falls for a pretty local girl and brings her back to L.A. We are no less surprised than the narrator when she eventually leaves him for another man. Very little actually happens in these stories. True, the characters DO things, but not BIG things that you would consider major scenes in the plot. Yet, I didn’t feel much was happening on the interior, either. Except for the mother in Beach Vacation, characters didn’t seem to learn anything – either about themselves or the world. But maybe I’m just missing it.
My favorite stories included “Five Rooms,” which I thought clever and original and well-written. A bored and bitchy teen-age girl is farmed out as penance for some infraction to help out a blind neighbor. Through the girl’s narration, which is strong and true, we discover that she isn’t such a bad person after all, far from it; and she herself discovers her own depths of goodness and compassion.
I also liked “Roger Weber Would Like To Stay.” Roger is the ghost of a dead pianist and onetime Romeo from an earlier era who haunts a single woman. She takes to him at first, but then he just starts to wear a little thin.
Another inventive story that benefits from a quirky situation and a colorful narrator is “Whatshisname.” Josh has suffered brain damage that makes him prone to irrational behavior and occasional “pronoun dyslexia,” according to his somewhat insensitive and lowclass girlfriend. Amusing things happen in the story – Josh wins the Lotto and comes up with some really stupid ways to spend the money for excellent causes — but it’s mostly about their relationship.
All of these stories are nicely written, and as mentioned, many of them introduce quite imaginative characters and situations. But if you are used to genre fiction where shit happens or people do things, you might get bored. On the other hand, if you are into literary fiction, this book is full of it.