I received ZZ Packer’s story collection Drinking Coffee Elsewhere as a gift in January, and therefore felt pretty much obliged to read it. Which is fine, because I was looking forward to find out what the hype about Ms. Packer was all about. I remembered her as one of the famed New Yorker’s 20 under 40 (among other up and coming literary superstars like Gary Shteyngart, Karen Russell, and Jonathan Safran Foer). What I hadn’t realized was how much of Packer’s reputation preceded her: she received such awards as the Best American Short Stories and a Guggenheim Fellowship, and has been the writer in residence in a number of prestigious creative programs in the US. And all of this, I discovered, for this single, slim book of stories.
Well, perhaps not surprisingly, I was a little underwhelmed. Certainly Packer knows how to write: her voice is strong (although perhaps, at times, not as sonorous as would befit her stories), her characters deep, her situations interesting. Her main theme, the reality of African American girls and women in the US, is vastly rich. There is nothing, therefore, profoundly wrong with anything she is doing. And yet there is something missing.
Mostly, I think what I was disappointed by is how she lets her stories unravel for too long. The wonderful thing about short fiction is how compact it is, how, even in longer stories, the prose never loses focus of the emotional core that is being explored, always looping back on themes or images that help it move along productively. Except in a few cases, this is not so in Packer’s book, where the stories tend to ramble on, unfurling in a repetitive fashion as they are driven forward not by theme or image of feeling but by stagnant plots.
As a case in point, the story “Speaking in Tongues” goes on for fifty pages; it’s practically a novella. The story follows the adventures of Tia, teenage girl who runs away from her aunt to find her long-lost mother in Atlanta. It’s a picaresque journey that puts her in contact with different shady characters: a man who buys her food at McDonald’s, a pimp who takes her to his house, and a prostitute called Marie. Where the story could be lively, interesting, and hook the reader into rooting for Tia and fearing for her life and innocence at every turn, instead I found myself a little bored as the story seemed to stall and repeat itself. The interjection at the end of the story, meant to loop the story back to its beginning, feels more like a device from the author to assure her that all of this material had its purpose.
The best story in this collection is definitely the one that gives the book its title, which is about a young black girl who ends up studying at Yale. Here, we have Packer finally letting loose the strength of a truly compelling voice, and utilizing her skills for both humour and tragedy. The narrator’s bitterness and anger is as compelling as it is sad, and her complex relationship with Heidi, her Canadian friend and sometimes lover, allows the story to reach true depth. Packer’s exploration of class, education, race, and solitude reaches an illuminated pinnace. Among the eight stories in the book, this is the only one I can honestly see myself revisiting multiple times in the future.
Reading Drinking Coffee Elsewhere, I was reminded at times of Junot Diàz—not so much in Packer’s style but in her thematic exploration. And its perhaps here that I made a mistake, because of course Diàz’s voice is so enthralling, and his mastery of the short story as a form is so bold, that it’s very easy to compare anyone to him and see their shortcomings. Packer, like all writers, must be approached on her own terms; but even then, I find that she didn’t quite live up to all the hype. Many of her stories tend to start with a powerful bang, and then unroll in a tattered way—one that does not like energy, but somehow uses that energy to move in circles that never really seem to get the subject into any clearer focus.
So, all in all, I found that, while Packer demonstrates a lot of potential in her one book, it didn’t quite add up to this image of a fresh, brilliant new writer bursting onto the literary scene. I think she still has something to prove (and maybe she will with her upcoming novel about Buffalo soldiers, several years in the making).
Finally, I wanted to end on a completely different note concerning this book. The image I put at the top is the cover of the original hardcover edition of Drinking Coffee Elsewhere, and it is one of the most unfortunate covers I have ever seen on a book published by a mainstream publishing house. I mean, seriously? It looks like it was made on “Paint” by a 12-year-old.
P.S. I know I’ve been blogging about a lot of short story collections recently, but this is the last one for a while, I promise.