If you read Marisa Silver’s debut story, “The Passenger,” in The New Yorker last year, it probably got under your skin. “I have a ring in my nose and a ring in my navel, and people make assumptions about me. None of them are true. I’m not a punk or a slave, a biker chick or a fashion hag. I drive a limo,” explains Babe, the narrator, before recounting the day a Japanese couple jumps ship during an L.A. traffic jam, leaving a large suitcase on the seat—a suitcase that cries.
Silver, a former Hollywood director (He Said, She Said, but don’t hold it against her), writes about the dark side of the city of angels, describing bottom-feeders and failed actors, Midwesterners watching their Hollywood dreams fizzle, and families threatened by fire, crime, and, in one case, a balding biological dad returned from the distant past like a forgotten social disease. The book’s ironic title is unfortunate and misleading—it sounds better suited to a Baywatch parody than to this smart collection, and the character Babe appears in just three of the stories, two of which are misfires. Still, if a few of Silver’s plots sag, most of her stories are magnificent. She has a clipped but intimate style and a knack for weaving multiple thematic threads into a single scintillating drama.
Many of Silver’s stories involve parenting and its liabilities. In “What I Saw From Where I Stood,” a couple grapples with the emotional fallout from a stillbirth. A year after their baby’s death, Charles and Dulcie are assaulted and nearly shot during a carjacking. They escape safely, but the bewildering attack echoes the cosmic “theft” of their baby, and Dulcie, who fears the thieves will find the couple’s apartment, descends into paranoia, sleeping with the lights on and hiding from trick-or-treaters bearing toy guns. Other personal boundaries are pushed and questioned: Dulcie learns that teachers can no longer touch the children at the elementary school where she teaches, and a burrowing rat in the wall of the couple’s apartment becomes suddenly intolerable. “He’s getting louder. Closer. Like he’s going to get in this time,” she says. As Dulcie retreats from the world, Charles, who narrates the story, gently attempts to lure her back to it. What he sees from where he stands one day at Griffith Park Observatory, while contemplating whether or not to leave his fearful wife, is life stretched out before him in all its botched beauty. He later coaxes Dulcie into bed for the first time since the baby’s death, listens for the rat, now gone, and reaches for her. “We were scared,” the story ends, “but we kept going.” With deft description and not a whit of gooey relationship talk, Silver tackles an original problem (where else do we read about dead babies in literature?) as it affects a strikingly real couple.
Many of Silver’s characters are hardheaded purists, sometimes at the expense of their own happiness. In “Gunsmoke,” a retired stuntman holes up in his foreclosed house in the desert, provoking a showdown with police and inadvertently reenacting a bad western. In “The Missing,” a single mom learns that her eccentric mother, a Holocaust survivor who has never discussed her experiences with her children, will embark—no preparation necessary—on a public speaking career: “She would tell complete strangers about the loss of every member of her family in the incinerators of Auschwitz, and about her inexplicable survival.” The story builds as Marianna takes her aging mother shopping for a dress for her first lecture, nurses her hustler brother through withdrawal, leaves him with her five-year-old in an expression of trust, and on the day of the speech, finds him back on drugs. Loyalties are tested until the ultimate trial: At the podium, her mother begins haltingly, then finds her voice, gliding into eloquence. “I can tell you that my mother had a beautiful smell,” she says, putting words to the unspeakable. “This smell is lost to me now. But not the sound of the train. Pock-e-ta, pock-e-ta, pock-e-ta. . . . ” Though Silver’s writing is never sentimental, this bombshell can only leave you blinking away sudden tears.
Babe in Paradise is heavy on dashed dreams and empty sex, yet it’s often hopeful and funny, and Silver’s cinematic sense of timing makes her stories jump with tension. In the carjacking scene in “What I Saw From Where I Stood,” she describes the criminals: “Two of them looked at their feet. One hopped up and down like a fighter getting ready for a bout. Someone was saying ‘Shit, shit, shit,’ over and over again. Then I heard, ‘Do it, do it!’ ” Paralyzed by external threats—natural, criminal, or emotional—these characters must overcome inertia to break the existential spells that plague them. Silver makes their plights, to use her own words, “particular and close.” Her writing stings, but the pain is good.