“I have a boyfriend.”
The main character in Tara Atkinson’s new novella Boyfriends says that sentence multiple times, and it’s not a statement of ownership, or an appreciation of a fact. Instead, she uses the sentence as a talisman to ward off other guys when they get creepy, when they try to make a move on her.
It’s not enough that she’s simply not interested in the men. She has to announce that she “belongs” to another man before they’ll leave her alone. Only if she’s taken will they stop trying to fuck her. So she says the sentence — sometimes it’s true, sometimes it’s not — and they leave her alone.
Boyfriends is the story of an unnamed protagonist from her youth to adulthood but it really only tracks her life as it relates to her boyfriends. The story really only gets started when a man — okay, a boy — notices her for the first time.
At church the next Sunday Miles passes her a note written on the program.
“You are the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. I want to kiss you forever. Will you go out with me?”
She writes “yes” and passes it back.
For the rest of high school he is her boyfriend.
It’s that simple: say yes to a single clumsy advance and in the next instant your identity has been sorted out for the next four years. That “yes” changes her life forever; she gradually loses her best friend (whose name, hilariously, is Ally) because her boyfriend changes the chemical balance of their friendship. It affects her choice of schools. It directs the flow of her future romantic relationships.
The main character is weightless; she doesn’t seem in control of her life. Instead, she gets tugged this way and that by whoever she happens to be dating at the time. Most of the time her desire is, if not entirely nonexistent, a faint pulse pinging far below the surface. You can only hear it if you turn your head just so and really, really listen for it. She gets into meditation for a while and a Gandhi quote in one prerecorded meditation session sticks with her: “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in service to others.” One can only picture Gandhi pointing to the men in Boyfriends and shaking his head at her and saying, “no, no, no, no, no. I didn’t mean it like that.”
Atkinson’s prose is distant and tinged with sadness, but it’s very broadly funny, too. You can read Boyfriends as a tragedy or a comedy, depending on which characters you pay attention to as you read. If you watch the woman in the story’s center, you’ll likely feel sad and frustrated on her behalf. But the buffoonish men who come sweeping in, all bluster and ignorance, are pure clowns. (One would-be suitor, on learning she’s an English major, opens with “so you like books” as a conversation starter and concludes with a whopper of a final pitch: “All I’m saying is if you ever need someone to fuck your brains out, call me.”)
Like clowns, the men in Boyfriends can make a serene situation incredibly uncomfortable in a matter of seconds. There’s always a threat of physical danger hovering over the story. They’re bigger than her, quicker to anger, prone to losing control. There’s not much of a line between a pratfall and a punch. They’re maybe three seconds and a fit of pique away from calling her the c-word and stomping out of her life forever.
And all through Boyfriends, she floats from job to job, using her English degree to land low-paying gigs working at coffee shops and restaurants. Finally, she lands something that pays better:
Eventually, she is hired to sit at the front desk of an office, where sometimes she will overhear her boss say he’ll “have the girl take care of it” before he approaches her and asks her to do something, calling her by the string of names that belong to the women who came before her until he lands on the right one.
This is a professional relationship that basically feels like a relationship being one of her boyfriends; to most of them, she’s less a person and more of a role that’s being filled. Those men would probably be alarmed and embarrassed to realize that in her story, they’re something even less
Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.
Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant