The Only Thing I Have

January 20, 2010

Rhonda Waterfall

Arsenal Pulp Press, 2009

The Only Thing I Have is a collection of stories that open and shut as chapters in their character’s lives, with little in the way of resolutions or introductions. Told predominantly through third person narrative, the stories are crafted with a dry, factual tone that accentuates the bleak and understated quirkiness that infect their unraveling. At first glance this technique is appealing in that it is punchy, jarring, hip. As the procession continues with the same beat, however, it becomes decreasingly effective.

The first story sets the tone for a jaunt into the lives of those dissatisfied, well, losers, who cling to what they already have instead of seeking change, one can only assume, out of fear. The majority of the stories that follow are shards from broken relationships, delusions and disillusions about love, and cold, hard sex. Sex with strangers, forceful sex, glassy-eyed duty sex, and, on one surprising occasion, sex with a pixie. This all sounds much more exciting than it really is.

The truth is that for all her attempts at a cutting, cool detachment, Waterfall trips and delivers little more than anecdotal jolts of discomfort. If the “unsettling evocative” is the calling card of au courant writers, then it goes without saying that its attainment has been pushed to newer, riskier limits. The Only Thing I Have falls on the safe side of this line, somewhere between oddball and trendy.

There is novelty to be found here somewhere, unfortunately it’s a quality that exists mostly inside the first half dozen stories; by the time In the Very Near Future arrives, whatever spunk we found is lost to the monotonous tone that carries the entire collection. Shake it up! Drop some wordplay, rhythm, imagery – anything – but for god’s sake don’t continue this love letter to the catastrophes of failed intimacy!

At her best, Waterfall taps into a creative verve that conjures up surprises that, in order to preserve the collection’s strengths intact, are best left discovered by the reader. In Aurelia Art dissatisfaction finds poignancy in obsessive imitation. It is here that the open ending reaches a peak – the bottom drops, and what remains is a taste of intrigue, the promise of possibility. The title story, The Only Thing I Have, on the other hand, reveals an infantile and pathetic protagonist who oscillates between desperately clinging to and rejecting his partner, as his underdeveloped thought process swings from hot to cold. With such a spineless jellyfish, how can any reader react with anything less than glee when the story drops him alone into a snowy ditch, miles from civilization, and takes his cell phone away?

One thing that is interesting, if not innovative, is Waterfall’s use of sex as an analgesic. This thread is followed throughout the book as characters drop in and out of hotel rooms with a glossy, urban chic that, for all its allure, leaves them as empty and discarded as the illusions they once maintained.

These are characters connected by their recurrent inability to overcome stagnation and defeat. Waterfall is clearly interested in exploring the human tendency towards fear induced paralysis, but how much is this exploration caught up in truth? The universality of this theme seems to want to make statements that feel too contrived given such a small space. These stories might have enough kick to stand up individually, but together they lose themselves in a collection about as diverse and palatable as a bowl of smarties. Reviewed by Marianne Perron, 2010.