Reviewed by Emily Webber
One of the best aspects of Kim Magowan’s writing is that she deeply understands desire and that all of life is about relationships. The stories in her latest collection, How Far I’ve Come, tackle similar territory to her other work while keeping it fresh. Magowan experiments with form and varying lengths in these stories, always creating intimate, darkly funny, and messily human characters. What is so thrilling about Magowan’s stories is that she presents a lifetime of entanglements, showing parts of relationships throughout the course of a life.
I first encountered Magowan’s wiring in Undoing, her debut short story collection. In one of the first few stories, a woman has drinks with her friends, and they talk about their relationships. It all seems like the usual gossip until the protagonist reveals something to the reader about an intimate act with her friend’s partner. The character delivers the news in such a matter-of-fact way and with such a crisp detail, the effect is jolting, and the story takes an unexpected turn. These are exactly the kinds of people that populate the stories in How Far I’ve Come—full of spirit and some devilishness, unafraid to be candid about what is happening around them. They give into desire, they desperately try to feel young and alive again, and they say absolutely what is on their mind with holding back.
In “Home Economics,” a mother washes dishes with her purse on her shoulder because her daughter steals from her. In another story, two sisters with a rocky relationship contemplate never seeing each other again as their last living parent dies. They throw harsh words at each other but leave the real emotion hidden. In “Beaks,” two friends pick each other apart for things they see lacking in themselves. Another character uses making amends as part of the AA program to let out rage and despair. In “Tapped,” a woman reels from the loss of a daughter, and as her family scatters, she feels abandoned and stuck. Relationships move into different phases. Every character in these stories seems to understand deep in their bones that they are not only doomed to fail others, but others will fail them.
Even when relationships end, we rarely get a clean break. In “Daisy Chain,” Sharon is told by her oncologist to get her affairs in order, and the only person she wants to call is her ex-husband, even after she has blown up their marriage. He comes over, always loyal to her, but bringing his son from his new wife.
George started dating Patty weeks after their divorce was finalized; by then Sharon had already split with Teddy. How wispy most relationships are: they burn away like fog. George lifts Geo onto one of the suede bar stools that, seven years ago, he picked out. Geo spins, kicking the cabinets of Sharon’s kitchen island to launch himself into rotation. The cabinets are painted white. But who cares? Minding scuffmarks involves investment in a future.
If this all seems like a lot of heartbreak and loneliness—it is. But Magowan’s writing is moving and insightful, and, in some parts, it is very funny. The characters are straight up and snarky. Two friends in “Sayulita” go away for a weekend before one of them gets married.
I want to sign up for facials, but Hallie rejects any treatments that might make us less beautiful for the wedding. She tells me the story, again, about how her friend Tabitha got a facial when she was in Indonesia. The technician didn’t sterilize her needles, so Tabitha had cystic acne and looked like shit for months. Every time I hear this story, I think the same thing: it couldn’t have happened to a more deserving person.
As the characters’ lives and relationships vary, Magowan also plays with structure and form. Some stories are longer, some only a paragraph. Stories are told in both a traditional structure and others in more experimental forms such as if/then statements, mad libs, and one where each section of the story begins with the following letter of the alphabet. The form matches how the characters’ lives take unexpected detours. They reveal private information and make surprising choices. The collection also feels firmly set in our present world. There are mentions of politicians and pop culture, and there are precise details signaling that the characters are inhabiting the same world and dealing with the same baggage as us.
A standout story in the collection, “Incompatible Ideas,” revisits characters Ben and Miriam, who also appeared in two stories in Undoing. You get a whole novel in these linked stories. The Ben and Miriam stories embody what Magowan explores best: showing how relationships evolve, the games we play with each other and the bad choices we make that can’t be undone, fully revealing her characters through different parts of their relationships with others. Magowan’s writing is full of genuine emotion and acknowledges the actual messiness of our relationships with others. Magowan understands there are people we stay tied to in life and the stories in How Far I’ve Come are delicious in their wickedness and their ability to portray the whole landscape of relationships.
How Far I’ve Come (194 pages) is available from Gold Wake Press.
Emily Webber was born and raised in South Florida where she lives with her husband and son. She has published fiction, essays, and reviews in the Ploughshares Blog, The Writer magazine, Five Points, Maudlin House, Split Lip Magazine, and elsewhere. She’s the author of a chapbook of flash fiction, Macerated, from Paper Nautilus Press. Read more at www.emilyannwebber.com.