Skating on the Vertical
By Jan English Leary
Reviewed by Erynn Porter
Trying to boil down a collection of short stories is always difficult. How do you summarize a variety of characters and their tales? How do you highlight what makes them unique? Short story collections don't always have a clear theme. In her latest collection, Skating on the Vertical, however, Jan English Leary captures the essence of the entire book in one particular short story, "Cadmium Red." In this story, a young woman named Gwen becomes infatuated by an older artist named Ethan. Ethan wants to paint her and Gwen thinks it's because he likes her. They spend many sessions together and Gwen falls deeper. Though in the end, she discovers that he has a wife and that the portrait he painted of her isn't flattering. She's heartbroken. Leary writes:
No, this was her, and he'd captured something deeply damaged. He'd stripped away her skin and her organs to reveal her vulnerability, splashing it all over his canvas for everyone to see.
In Skating on the Vertical, Leary writes about the darkest parts of humanity, the parts we don't usually want to acknowledge, the parts we hide from others. Though sometimes they seem to just shoot out to the surface. Naturally, we want to show our best selves to other people. We don't want them to see our bad parts. We want to be liked, accepted. Leary's characters don't have the luxury of hiding their bad parts, however. These characters make some terrible choices and we see them all. They hurt people and do this knowingly. You won't like these characters, but Leary makes sure you understand them.
There has been a long running controversy over "unlikable characters." People wonder if there is a point in writing about them at all. Can there truly be unlikable characters? To write proper characters that are unlikable takes a lot of skill. The character has to be unlikable, but at the same time, we have to like them enough to follow them through the story. This could be because we hope that the character will redeem him or herself in the end, or maybe because we want to live vicariously through that character's unlikeable actions.
Leary has managed this difficult balance to perfection. She dives deeply into the minds of her characters so the reader can understand how the characters have gotten to this point. The reader can see the characters' logic, as flawed as it is. They see all the hurt inside the characters that the outside world doesn't know about. Leary's characters range from a teenager trying to find his place in the world while his family is coming apart, to a teacher that hates herself so much, she takes it out on a student that reminds her of herself. While the reader may not agree with the logic or actions of these characters, Leary encourages empathy for them.
A great example of this is the story "Weighing the Heart." Writing from a child's point of view is difficult. An author is restricted by the character's age, but doesn't want to make the child sound stupid. Leary strikes a perfect balance between character depth and childlike innocence. Mona, a young girl, is sitting in the hospital. Her father is sick and has been for a long time, though this is not her focus. Instead, Mona's focus is on whether or not her mom will be able to finish her Cleopatra costume for her fifth-grade costume day.
Mona is obsessed with Egypt and reads a book about it while trying to pretend she is somewhere else. Though at the same time, Mona is completely aware of the concerns the adults around her have. The reader finds out what's going on through the conversations around Mona. She can't pretend she doesn't see the worry and fear in her mother and grandmother. She thinks about this while reading. It's as if she can't focus on it for too long or the worry and fear will become real.
By the end of the story, Mona's grandmother yells at her for looking at mummies while her father is in such a state. Mona immediately wonders if this whole situation is her fault, like she cursed her father because she liked this stuff. In the end, even though she isn't told about it explicitly, she knows her father's situation has changed for the worse.
In "Weighing the Heart," Leary is able to capture how observant kids are, even if they don't understand everything they are hearing. They have the same instincts as adults, just not enough practice with them. By the end, the adults and the situation create a break in Mona's innocence.
One problem with this collection is that a number of the stories are a bit forgettable. Either they don't give the reader enough time to immerse herself in the world, or the characters are underdeveloped. A perfect example of this is the story "Dust and Ice." It's only two pages long, and while that could be plenty of space, Leary's tale doesn't fit in it.
The story is about a couple stargazing. The reader is listening to the woman's thoughts—we don't know her name—about her partner, Brian, and where they are in their relationship. Brian doesn't seem to be as attached to the narrator as she is to him. Instead, he's focused on having sex with her and making sure that she has protection. She doesn't have it and has done this on purpose to make him more attached to her. There are clearly some unresolved issues for these two that could be explored further.
The potential for this story is huge. The desperation and loneliness that surround this woman is very familiar. The idea of her trying to get pregnant so Brian will stay with her could be a gold mine of scenes and character development. The problem is that the reader doesn't get enough time with these two. The reader doesn't get to know them deeply, and we remain unattached from them as a result. The ending is too abrupt, almost as if something is missing.
While not all of the stories in Skating on the Vertical are memorable, you will never forget the best ones here. They will make you pause and think about your actions and how they affect others. Maybe you will take a hard look at your bad parts and try to see the beauty in them.