How Gone We Got
By Dina Guidubaldi
Queen’s Ferry Press, 2015
186 pages, $16.95
Reviewed by Meghan Lamb
Some people have a complicated relationship with puns. It’s not a love-hate relationship so much as a wincing, self-acknowledging, self-loathing love. Puns get a bad rap because they are glaringly desperate and forced, attempting to sum-up the gist of a joke in one single impossible punch-line. Sometimes, they’re so pathetic that they’re brilliant: cheesy, mad-grinning, stupid examples of everything all language fails to say.
Dina Guidubaldi seems to share those feelings about puns, and her debut short story collection, How Gone We Got, resonates with the uneasy tension of jokes fallen flat. She utilizes this tension knowingly, underlining the failed expectations of her characters. Most of these characters are lost seekers of some sort, looking for things that are either unclear or were never quite there to begin with. A young woman seeks her ideal partner in a local musician, only to realize—over time—that her desires have grown past him. A newly divorced woman turns to the night sky for solace, sitting up on the roof while the neighbor kids watch and wonder what she’s thinking. A man becomes obsessed with his desire to cease desiring, shutting off his heat, shutting down his girlfriend, and purging himself of his worldly possessions. Numerous women attempt to rekindle a sense of romantic excitement, understanding the time—and the feeling—they want to revisit is no longer within their reach.
Her characters feel these failures and often express them with pun-like false finishes. One character “winks into the air where the sun has dropped,” then considers her action and feels dumb. Another character jokes as she slides down a hill with the boy that she admires, two of their feet crammed inside one boot attempting—wait for it—an “impossible feet”. (I must admit that even as someone who appreciates the pathetic magic of puns, that last one made me cringe. I recognize, however, that this may have been Guidubaldi’s intention.) At times, this collection reads beautifully. At other times, it falls flat on the sentence level, much like the awkward joke lines she employs.
Despite the continuous undercurrent of seeking, failing, and pun-like frustration, How Gone We Got contains an extremely wide range of stories and narrative styles. This is the collection’s greatest weakness; it feels scattered, indecisive, and—at points—un-self-aware. Guidibadli’s tone spans from casual, direct realism to more abstract narratives with magical elements. I feel that the strongest stories within this collection strike an aptly tenuous note between narrative realism and abstraction, reflecting their conflicted content through equally unsettled form.
My favorite piece in the collection, “Sometimes They Talk Back,” exemplifies Guidibaldi’s mastery of these interwoven tones. Herein, she tells the story of a young girl who idealizes her father despite his growing emotional distance from her family. Unable to connect through face-to-face conversation, her father constructs speaking robots with unusual human-like qualities:
The android, which I didn’t like—it actually had pale skin, a new polymer casing like a sausage—sighed. My father bent down and shook out an orange extension cord and said, smoothly, “Don’t you love me?”
“I love you.” I smiled and went to hug him, but his back was turned as he lit an old cigarette butt. “Obviously.”
The android had a single blue eye, like a frozen sea, which looked at me. “I’m glad,” it said, holding out a half-completed hand. “Because I love you, too. Obviously.”…
He picked up his soldering iron. “You’re still my favorite, though,” he said to me. “My favorite robot.” I nodded and reached out for a hand, whose I didn’t care.
More than any other story in this collection, “Sometimes They Talk Back” insinuates the subtleties of her characters’ perspectives. She builds a wonderful sensory landscape through her choice of descriptive details—the pale skin, the blue eye like a frozen sea—which provides a stark contrast to her short, terse dialogue. She provides the reader with beautifully worded glimpses into her characters’ longings, illustrating the disparity between their desire to connect and the faltering quality of their language.
Ultimately, it would be great to see a second collection of stories that speaks more consistently to Guidubaldi’s greatest strengths. She demonstrates a remarkable ability to suggest a character’s relationship to their surroundings using very little (or no) dialogue, which is an ability I deeply appreciate and admire. When she incorporates dialogue, she is a mistress of understatement, using pacing and repetition to articulate even more than the words themselves. I feel she would best represent these abilities with a more thematically and aesthetically unified collection wherein her stories have the opportunity to bleed together.