Review: Kara Weiss’s Late Lights
Colony Collapse Press
Review by Celine West
When is it too late to change the course of a life? When we talk about teenagers, young adults, we generally feel that there is still a lot of possibility for change, that they’ll grow out of bad habits or patterns of behavior, grow up and leave behind traumatic experiences. From an older standpoint, it’s easy to say they have their whole lives ahead of them, feel sure that change will come, that at least some will find their way to better lives or that there will be a positive intervention from one of the adults they will meet. Yet the young characters in Late Lights seem already set on paths that feel doom-laden, the possibility of change slim, as though they are already in the middle of a continuing cycle of destructive behavior, others’ and their own, that will endure.
The book is an interlinked set of tales of terrible things happening to a group of adolescents who were once childhood friends. The few shared memories of their childhood are poignant—the boy and girl who loved to pile leaves beneath the bedroom window to cushion their repeated jumping out, revisiting their first grade classroom with its bean bag chairs and “alphabet hanging slack above the chalkboard.” The stories are set in the vastly different world of their teenage present, where all of them are having, and this is an understatement, a hard time. The lives they have now are tough, gritty, most of their experiences filled with violence. It is an unrelenting read, the stories sliding into one another like cars in an agonizing pile up.
Weiss references Tarantino in the opening section, a telling reference to glossy, stylized but bloody violent acts and many of the incidents that fill these stories feel familiar from film and television. Several of them are familiar enough that I could call them tropes: the self-harming adolescent girl, child of divorced parents; the sexual abuse of boys in the restroom of an all-male institution; a teenage girl’s first sexual exploration crushed by an overbearing male family member; the poor little rich girl whose childhood is materially comfortable but lacking in love.
In Weiss’s Brookline, Massachusetts, parents are emotionally unavailable, physically and verbally abusive, and as childishly self-centered as the toddlers their offspring used to be. This applies whether the family is poor or rich, the parents illiterate or educated. The descriptions of the pain of wearing shoes too small, because no one cares enough to get the child any, made me wince. The legacy of parenting that either isn’t loving or sensitive enough or is outright neglectful, the havoc that families can force on the youngest, begins to feel like the message of the book. Circumstances force an act of kindness from one of the parents and that feels disproportionately amazing and better than it is because it plays out against the backdrop of enduring horror.
The atmosphere that results from these scenarios is moralizing at times, for the reader, for we can imagine the better lives the teenagers may have had if their parents had been different. Even when they want to change and decide they will, even when they try to break free, as with a girl who sends herself to boarding school to get away from her mother, happy endings aren’t shown here. This makes for a relentlessly grinding read. Even the one character whose young life has much going for it falls into a hole, her story featuring emotional violence if not the physical violence her friends go through. Her affair with an older man ends up with her wanting attachment to his wife as much as him, a desperate desire for a loving parental unit replacing sexual desire.
Late Lights describes itself as “a novella-in-stories”. It used to be that the only thing harder to publish than a collection of short stories was a novella, so now that both are enjoying something of a revival perhaps it’s edgy, avant-garde, to combine the two. And I liked the idea, the concept; to me, it signaled shorter than average page count featuring short narrative arcs that would nevertheless be linked. However, the stories are not sewn together in a way that merits them being dressed under the novella label. Links are made through the setting of Brookline and the characters’ past relationships and some characters feature in more than one story, but these elements don’t work to entwine the stories into a novelistic whole. More subtle imagistic, thematic, elements running throughout, atoms of emotion that resonate across the whole book, would justify calling it a novella. I wondered if the idea was the writer’s or the publisher’s.
Because of the fragmented form of the book, we are introduced to each of the group of adolescents one at a time, gradually discovering snippets about their relationships with each other and the different connections that criss-cross between them. We find out things in later stories that change the way we perceive the events of earlier ones. I wasn’t sure if this effect was intentional or not, because it can make the reader feel more alienated from characters—when you find out that what you thought turns out not to have been the whole story—but that alienation may be the point, an extra way of making us feel the alienation of the characters, the sense of unbelonging and needing to remake their stories.
Weiss’s writing has a strong visual quality; when it works, it feels like watching scenes unfold in fluid sequences of moving images. This has its roots in vibrant descriptions of place and of action, and the dialogue rings as true as good TV dialogue, in that we can believe that these people talk this way, whether they’re officers in a juvenile detention center, lawyers, or the teenage girl who tells her story in the first person.
A lot of the book contains writing that feels well crafted: sentences vary from winding descriptions that appeal to all the senses to short staccato ones that successfully dispense with traditional grammar to deliver their punch. Yet, overall, the texture of Weiss’s writing suffers a little from the competencies of “writing school,” by which I mean it can feel like there are steps the writer has learned to follow and so follow them they must: start in the middle of the action, use local color, now add dialogue, go easy on the adverbs, now apply stress to a character, give them a troubled background, leave gaps for the reader. These are often (usually) the right skeleton for a story but need burying beneath more craftiness—more well-crafted writing as well as more cunning writing, so that readers can more often forget they are reading.
Kara Weiss was raised in Brookline, Massachusetts. She attended Williams College and holds an MFA from the University of Washington. Kara was the recipient of the Ingham prize for fiction, and her work has appeared in numerous literary magazines. She currently lives with her family in Salt Lake City, Utah. Please visit her at karaweiss.com.
Celine West is a writer and museum professional, working with stories and objects at University College London. Her recent fiction has been published in Fractured West and the Virago anthology of ghost stories, Something Was There.