Little Women

Let me try my hand at one of those conditionals: If Alcott has always been interested in how people bargain with forces bigger than them, then Emergency is about what happens when women bet against themselves; when women use their own autonomy as a bargaining chip in a wager that might gain them some power within a system inherently built against them.

Inaction is the coping mechanism of choice

Bobbye Fermie, Act 10. Courtesy of Wilder Gallery.

Kathleen Alcott. Emergency. W. W. Norton, 2023.

It’s there in the dedication: “For Annabel Davis-Goff, whose many lives would shame a great man’s one.” Gender trouble lies ahead. Emergency, a new short story collection by Kathleen Alcott, continues the 35-year-old Californian’s turning of her clinical eye and icy style toward the struggle between people and the world into which they’re born. The collection succeeds three novels all largely concerned with the trappings of contemporary American life (sexism and misogyny included) and, in particular, the compromises and risks working people take to have a semblance of agency over their fates.

Alcott and her characters are acutely aware of class and power. Alcott’s first book, 2012’s The Dangers of Proximal Alphabets, published when Alcott was 24, follows a trio—two blood brothers and a surrogate sister—as they emerge from adultified childhood into tenuous adulthood. In 2015’s Infinite Home, Alcott expanded her focus to six characters: five renters and one owner living in a brownstone in Brooklyn, the antagonistic tension inherent in the landlord-tenant relationship eased by the landlord’s desire to construct something like a family around herself. 2019’s America Was Hard to Find saw Alcott expanding her scope yet again: the novel spans four decades that encompass the Vietnam and cold wars, American radicalism, and the AIDS crisis, told through the lens of a pair of one-time lovers and their son.

In Emergency, Alcott’s first short story collection, the historical scope radically contracts. Stories unfold sometimes within just a few hours. The overarching forces in question—misogyny, patriarchy, dependence—are both grander and more abstract. They are timeless and, as a result, inescapable. The injustices—uneven power in a relationship, dependency on an exploitative job—within which the lives of Emergency’s characters unfold have a heavy, ambient quality. Inside such suffocating atmospheric conditions, Alcott’s subject of interest becomes more specific, and more static. Here, it’s not just people on the losing end of a power dynamic that she strains to depict and, maybe, understand. It’s women.

Alcott’s biography feels latent in the collection. Characters who are precocious, and who are sometimes willing to trade on their youth and naivete in exchange for power or stability, might emerge from Alcott’s experience with early success. “If I had to endure the interrupting colleague,” says Claudia in “Part of the Country,” Emergency’s meandering fifth story, “the doctor whose hand stayed on my back too long, then maybe to be named [baby], by the men I had chosen, was a correction for the rest: being called something less so I’d be given something more.” Finely drawn conditionals like this abound. They’re Alcott’s way of drawing attention to the leaps her characters take to reconcile what they think and what they actually do, what they’ve achieved and what they’ve grudgingly accepted in order to do so. “If she was less bothered by their station as hokey representatives of the twentieth century,” Alcott writes of Shirley, one of two protagonists of the collection’s fourth story, “it was because her power in it had always been an ersatz version of his, and she had taught herself not to distinguish the real from the fake.” The title of the story, “A World Without Men,” suggests an existence that Alcott’s entire oeuvre denies: The lives of Emergency’s women characters unfold, invariably and seemingly inevitably, against those of men.

Emergency’s women—and there are many—are always suspended in a moment of transition, unmoored and stuck at the same time. Francis and Shirley are dive-bar singers in their fifties or sixties whose four-decade-long routine comes to a halt when a deadly virus hits Los Angeles. Claudia wants to leave her husband but can’t bring herself to do it. Shirley’s singing schedule, the structure that has dictated her life for decades, has vanished, but she still feels bound to Francis and their daily life. There is something of Ferrante’s Days of Abandonment in this collection, but unlike Olga, who launches into a fit of crazed hyperactivity after her husband leaves her, Alcott’s women rarely drive the plot forward. The plot, rather, drives them.

This stasis is of central interest to Alcott. Throughout the collection, men are affected by women only circumstantially or in passing moments (the mechanic who develops a crush on the protagonist and texts her flirtatiously) while women’s lives are, either actually or potentially, upended by men (the woman who might not be able to get around if the mechanic refuses to fix her car when she doesn’t flirt back). Alcott’s women choose inaction as a response to these circumstances. They perceive themselves to be stuck in an impossible bind. Helen Tiel, the wayward protagonist of the book’s first and titular story, speaks of her recent ex-husband “as if he had invented her, as if she had nothing to do with what her life had become.” The narrators of the story, a Greek chorus of Helen’s friends, portray this as a refusal of responsibility, but, for Helen, it’s a relinquishing of power. In their own lives, Helen’s friends (all of whom seem to lead coupled, conventional lives) have embraced this sacrifice with total, if grudging, acceptance. They have stopped chafing, accepted their lot, and internalized the hate of a world that has bent them into submission. Helen’s friends blame her misfortunes on her failure to do the same. Helen, who held on to the notion that “she might prove the brilliant exception” to the rule that a woman must choose a man to whom to tie her fate, finds her life without a clear direction outside of this path. She is untethered and, worse, unsafe. Her casting away of the standards by which her friends happily (or unhappily, it doesn’t make a difference) lead their lives eventually carries her into the bed of a teenager, which then turns into a room full of parental admonishment—that is to say, it carries her backward, into childhood.

These are the options presented to Alcott’s women: submission, subjugation, play-acting at power derived from the internalization of misogyny—or rejecting misogyny and retreating to the life of a child. No choice comes without consequence; the collection is suffused with the sense that existential peril waits for women near men as much as it does away from them. When, in the book’s second story, “Worship,” the protagonist’s (Hannah’s) boyfriend (Phillip) reveals himself to have been violent toward a former girlfriend, Hannah finds herself searching for reasons to stay with him. Phone calls to a friend further down the path of domestic womanhood—“a granite counter,” “the floors covered in maroon kilims,” “a child’s purple drawing of a house”—hold Hannah in place, a static lure beckoning: you could have this, too. One would think that the example of a placid relationship with a non-violent man would in fact drive Hannah away from Phillip, but the unexplainable element is what’s of interest here; her choice to stay remains a mystery even and especially to herself: “If she took pride in her mind, she could not find the wisdom in the situation that surrounded her.” (There is that conditional again.)

Inaction is the coping mechanism of choice for nearly all of Emergency’s women: they retreat, they pull their knees up, they go to sleep. In “Natural Light,” a woman in the midst of a divorce finds a photograph of her mother in a compromising position. It’s never revealed what exactly she was doing, but the context clues (New York City, the 1970s, a room furnished with milk crates and rubber tubing, a bruise on her elbow) suggest nothing short of sordid. The narrator calls her father—she needs more information, a reality check—and he plays dumb. Even after she sends him the evidence, a photo of the photo she took with her phone, his acknowledgment is gestural and reductive: “When I met your mother she was nine months clean and I was six, and she still had some New York on her.” He is unwilling, we are left feeling, to conceive of his wife as she might have been, to see her in a light other than the one he had cast on her. When, seeking answers, the narrator finds the photographer (crucially, a woman), she is available but far away, unable or unwilling to give her what she wants. The photographer insists on taking her picture, and she finally agrees, under one condition: “so long as I’m asleep.” Stupor is again the only way out of the labyrinth into which one of Alcott’s women has drifted.

This might be because, save a few friends—Hannah’s Michelle, Helen’s disapproving Greek chorus—Alcott’s women are notably, alarmingly alone. Their actions go unwitnessed, their discomfort unmitigated. In “Reputation Management,” Alice self-soothes by shopping online: “Now they had arrived in her foyer, the fresh produce and the lauded memoir and the sulfate-free shampoo, and they would keep her fed and clean for days.” Deep unease pulses through this story, a pervasive sense that if stupor is the only solution, there might actually be no way out. After a series of upsetting but ultimately inconsequential events, “Alice, for one, felt thankful for a world that let her stay exactly where she needed to be.”

Let me try my hand at one of those conditionals: If Alcott has always been interested in how people bargain with forces bigger than them, then Emergency is about what happens when women bet against themselves; when women use their own autonomy as a bargaining chip in a wager that might gain them some power within a system inherently built against them. Whatever they might gain—Helen’s bourgeois life, Hannah’s coupled bliss—can never make up for what they’ve already given up.

It’s an apt time for such an exploration. Absent a coherent feminist or women’s movement in the United States, the contemporary social, cultural, and even economic status of women—and therefore the definition of womanhood—has been left to take shape always against something else. Women are (depending on who you ask): female reproductive organs (the Supreme Court and various writers of anti-trans legislation), subservient to their men (tradwives of TikTok and Instagram), strong and powerful (a dying breed of Girlboss feminist), or femme at all costs (Greta Gerwig’s Barbie). It’s only through interaction with their male counterparts that female reproductive organs become subject to legislation about what happens inside them; both tradwives and Girlboss feminists conceive of themselves as archetypal foils to men; and Barbie’s story would be incomplete without her Ken. Women are defined by men.

It’s this terrifyingly narrow definition that ultimately conditions the lives of Alcott’s women, in Emergency and elsewhere. In The Dangers of Proximal Alphabets, Ida—the only woman protagonist—is called “I” by her friend and later lover, Jackson. “I” as in her initial, but also, and more importantly, “I” as in the first-person singular. Jackson can always claim Ida’s actions as his own. In America Was Hard to Find, Fay reacts to her father’s wealth and privilege by gravitating toward a far-left extremism that, in turn, leads her to horrifying self-harm. It’s no wonder Emergency’s women are always staying still—womanhood, as they’ve come to experience it, is entrapment. And then: “Temporary Housing.” The collection’s final story weaves together multiple timelines with observations about American timber construction. The center of gravity is the nameless narrator’s relationship with her childhood best friend. A heartbreaking ending reveals a conviction at the base of all of Alcott’s steely realism: not every woman can afford to, alone, define herself against a man. Not every woman can afford to stay still. Not everyone’s bargaining chip has the same value: for some people, the bargain results in the end of the self.

I kiss her for knowing, I adore her again, she walks deep into shadow, I go deep in my body, lick my tooth where she’s chipped it, she forgives us all distance, we come from the same place, we are parts of the same life.

Maybe we aren’t girls, surely we were never children, but we might have the talents of animals, sensing everything that wants to kill us, and that we need to kill.

By the end of the story the narrator speaks in the first-person plural, the first instance of this point of view since the judgmental Greek chorus of “Emergency.” Only here, it’s not oppositional. It is the only way she can imagine moving forward.

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