Leopoldine Core’s debut collection of stories, When Watched, is the result of some ten years of writing. I first read a version of Core’s title story in 2010, when I was still an intern at Open City magazine. Already, her penchant for pointillist detail, the aptness of her similes (“his breath smelled like cloudy goldfish water”; “Sandy was barrel-shaped with boobs like elf shoes”), the signature grace of her final dismount — all of this was more or less in place. Her writing had nothing of the squishy, unformed quality of younger writers, myself included, yet it still managed to feel appropriately melodramatic for an author in her early twenties.
“When Watched” would become Core’s first published story. In it, a teenage girl is watching her mother as she prepares to go out on a date. The girl is furious at her mother in that way of children who have been forced to cope with less love than they would like. “Those mornings, her mother was a hideous flirt, letting her robe fall from one shoulder, her whole body blushing,” Core writes. “She would stand at the stove scrambling eggs and fondling her weird dangly earrings, sometimes glancing over one shoulder, grinning.”
When the girl wakes up alone in the apartment in the middle of the night, she plots to get herself murdered, imagining her mother sobbing and wishing she’d appreciated her daughter more while she was still alive. “Too good for this world,” she thinks with pleasure as she eats a stack of saltine crackers, holed up in her mother’s bed, watching TV. Rereading this story last week, I felt a renewed sensation of recognition: It was as though Core had unearthed one of the numerous lost moments of my childhood, moments I had marked insignificant and had forgotten. What makes her writing so captivating, ultimately, is her ability to levitate seemingly mundane experiences with the sheer intensity of her attention.
Writing fiction wasn’t the most intuitive outlet for Core. Growing up in the East Village with a single mother in a railroad apartment that didn’t afford much privacy, Core spent much of her time indoors, watching TV and inventing stories for her dolls. Television was her first education. She derived her sense of story from shows like Roseanne and, later, My So-Called Life. Diagnosed with dyslexia and A.D.D., she found it difficult to read and write in school. Only in retrospect did she realize that she had been reading and writing, in her own way. “I never felt especially trapped, I liked being home, fantasizing,” she tells me over email. “If I had a friend over we would pretend to be other people, sometimes dressing up, acting out roles. I never tired of that. The effect of being cooped in this very small space was that I had to invent other spaces and live there.”
Core’s stories enact domestic dramas that read like miniature plays perceived through a keyhole. Conveyed in close third-person, the plot is often revealed through dialogue between two people ensconced in confessional spaces: in bed after sex, smoking weed on an apartment floor, stuck in a car during a road trip, communing through a computer screen. That spoken dialogue reads like an inspired text message exchange with someone you’re trying desperately to seduce. (To make sure it all sounds exactly right, Core spends hours reading her writing aloud, recording and playing it back to herself.) Using rapid-fire repartee that recalls Truman Capote or J.D. Salinger, both of whom influenced Core early on, her characters set out to beguile one another until they change course, their words suddenly weapons for wounding.
In the story “Paradise,” Hank and Lenora are middle-aged writers at the brink of separate personal crises. They cycle through a tornado of emotions over the span of just a few pages. Charming but volatile, Lenora flies from lovable, misanthropic ranting at the airport (“Then I got really wild and bought the Tuscan turkey sub — which is all language”) to queries that have no other purpose than to gut (“How can I miss you when you won’t go away?”). Hank, likewise, loves Lenora helplessly but by the end finds himself uttering: “You’re a vampire…. It’s why your books are so good — they’re full of actual lives.” And that story doesn’t even end there.
Perched precariously on the knife blade of desire, where people toggle between love and hate, Core’s tales are never predictable. “I like the moment in a story when our sense of who someone is starts to subtly morph,” she says. “I’m always courting that moment when I write. It’s kind of the Frankenstein moment — that moment when the character I constructed is suddenly alive, disobeying my design.” It’s an open-ended approach that also lends itself to exploring atypical couples who resist prefab constructions of coupledom: a younger writer and an older musician who adopt a dog in “Historic Tree Nurseries”; two pals who violate their friendship by prostituting themselves to a man with a sick child in “Hog for Sorrow”; twin sisters who fuse their opposing impulses, eros and thanatos, in a codependent relationship in “Like Baby.”
A common thread throughout the book is a deep anxiety about time, which threatens to impinge upon each character’s pursuit of love. Young women worry prematurely about not being cute anymore; older ones (“I look like some rotting Keith Richards”) fret about freakish neck whiskers and menopause. There are ailing parents, ailing careers, ailing minds. Says Core: “I think I resent time because I don’t understand it. I’ll be astounded that a month has passed, say. Or that only five minutes have elapsed. I want to live in my own sense of time in a way that makes sense, seduce myself into these irregular minutes I’ve fashioned, so I don’t go mad.” Art, perhaps, is one such corrective. In “Like Baby,” Margo says to her twin sister:
“I want to be an artist.”
“So be one.”
“But I feel so behind,” Margo said, a tear rolling down her cheek. “I wish time would slow down.”
“Well it won’t.”
Then Margo picks up her camera and takes a photograph.
When Watched: Stories
240 pp., Penguin Books