Almost exactly four years ago, I reviewed Seattle author Richard Chiem’s short story collection You Private Person. I request that you don’t look up the review. It’s not bad, exactly, but I clearly didn’t understand the book very well. I blabbed for a while, failed to find a point, and then concluded the review having said exactly nothing. (Pro tip: when a reviewer opens a piece raving about the beauty of an author’s sentences, that reviewer is probably pushing up against a deadline and can’t figure out what else to say.) It always bugged me a little that I couldn’t figure out how to get my arms around Chiem’s book.
Book reviewers don’t generally get second chances. At around the same time a book lands on the new release table at local independent bookstores, we read it and review it and then we move on. I don’t often double-dip reviews. Books, after all, don’t change; part of the reason we love books is that they stay the same, even as we grow and deteriorate. Just because you slap a new cover on a book doesn’t make it new, right?
But here comes a lit-crit miracle: Four years after its original release, Person is now published in a brand-new edition by small press Sorry House. But this isn’t just some slap-a-cheap-coat-of-paint-on-it-style rejiggering. This Person is a profoundly cleaned up edition, refined and improved and maybe more ready for the world (or perhaps vice versa) than in its first incarnation.
The many grammatical and spelling errors that plagued Person’s first release have been fixed. The book’s layout and design is superior. (While the cover of the Scrambler Books edition is great — it’s a jumble of brightly colored cars, giving off the impression of a gumball machine—the stately new cover has more of an appropriate feel.) Billed as a “Sorry House Classic,” this edition of Person feels less like a touch-up on the original and more like a ground-up reaffirmation of the ideas that set Chiem to writing in the first place. It’s a quality rebuild, somewhat like a Criterion edition of a DVD that’s been available, forgotten, in bargain bins for decades.
On second reading, You Private Person strikes me as less a traditional short story collection and more of a collage. Twice in the book, longer stories tear themselves into shards, telling a single story in smaller chunks through a kaleidoscope of perspective and perception.
The book opens with a twisty-turning suite of short-short stories titled “Sociopaths.” Like many of the stories in Person, it co-stars a man named Richard who is in a relationship that just might be doomed. Richard learns that the man who sexually assaulted his girlfriend Mary years ago has reappeared. He plans to take revenge, and he brings his friend Thom along as he hunts down the assailant. But what is Richard avenging? Is he trying to make Mary feel better? Is he performing his love? Or is he doing something creepier — marking his territory? Does Mary even have a place in Richard’s psychodrama? At one point, Richard roasts a suckling pig for Mary, who responds with confusion: “You made a whole pig?” The story is full of elaborate gestures that are performed to exactly nobody’s satisfaction.
Another story, “The first time or someone like me would have a chance in a movie,” opens with a paragraph that contains a telling image: “She make-believes the apocalypse has already happened while she stares at her hands resting on the steering wheel.” Mourning a world that has not yet ended, staring at hands that should be feeling. The book is crammed full of apocalypses and near-apocalypses and forgotten apocalypses.
Though they share a certain aesthetic with the emotionless-young-people literary boom of the late 1980s, Person’s stories are not Douglas Coupland-style elegies for doomed, ridiculous civilizations or Bret Easton Ellis’s unwitting self-satires. There’s a seething undercurrent just beneath the placid surface of every page. Any of these characters could commit a murder, or flip a car, or holler the blood out of their lungs at any moment. The sex is roiling with an undercurrent of hate masked with apathy: “They pull hair and remain quiet, not speaking.”
If there’s something that appears more in Person than apocalypses, it’s cars. The book has more cars in it than I-5 at rush hour: Crashing cars, parking cars, car sex. Good drivers. Bad drivers. The loneliness of the main character in “Chloe in the afternoon” is introduced this way: “Although she feels rushed, Chloe is the first one to arrive to the office, the only car in the parking lot on the hill…” That’s a very particular loneliness—lonelier even than a person standing alone in an empty lot on a hill. That car between Chloe and the world is an extra-dense shell, dividing her from even the air.
I greatly enjoyed Person on its initial release, but this reissue feels right, like it was foretold in an ancient prophecy. The topics that once felt like jokes now resonate bone-deep, and the structure that once felt interesting now seems just right for a world whose attention has been blasted into millions of tiny splinters. Loneliness. Rage. The always-impending apocalypse. Hate-fucking. Maybe the world wasn’t ready for Person when it came out in 2013. Maybe it’s being reborn at just the right time.
Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the Los Angeles Times, the Seattle Times, 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