The title of Rebecca Schiff's debut short story collection, The Bed Moved, is a short, declarative sentence. Grammatically, it's straightforward. But its meaning is strange -- fantastical, even. It raises more questions than answers: where, and how, did the bed move? Did it move once, or continuously, a floating space-bed? And whose bed was it?
The titular bed belongs to the protagonist of the collection's first story. Quipping about the men she's slept with, a blur of individuals each defined by his career -- film student, anthropologist -- she jokes, "Finally, I had an audience." For her, sex and the act of pursuing it is a performance, her bed a stage. The men are an anonymous crowd.
Like Kate Zambreno’s Green Girl and Nell Zink’s The Wallcreeper, Schiff’s stories follow female characters whose identities are shaped by their sexual explorations. They try on encounters with men like outfits, willingly swapping one out for another, and feeling empowered by their own whirring spontaneity.
But unlike other writers of her ilk, Schiff doesn’t tell these tales in a gritty, realistic style, shedding light on something sinister lurking beneath the characters’ sexual whims. Instead, her very short stories are spare and buoyant, bouncing from one insight to the next. Like smart, confident teens trying out new belief systems in earnest, her characters make assured, funny observations about their peers, and then, lightly, move on.
In “Men Against Violence,” she writes disapprovingly about a pacifism club at her college, founded by her close friend’s then-boyfriend. “It’s not that impressive to be against violence,” her nameless protagonist muses, “If you would never be violent anyway.” The rest of the story is comprised of these stream-of-consciousness thoughts, most of them cropping up at a wedding, where the aforementioned man against violence was the groom.
“My toast was not very good,” she writes. “I said my friend was marrying someone with a cool beard. I had seen cooler beards. I had seen cooler beards at this wedding, but most of the men with beards had girlfriends, assigned to sit next to them in case the water glasses got mixed up. When had my friend made so many new friends?”
Surrounded by pacifists with tendencies to speak in clichés, she concludes that violence “has to mean what it says, and it shuts everybody up when it says it.” An astute sentiment, but one that seems dogmatic in the context of the story.
A similar moral lesson is at the center of “It Doesn’t Have to Be a Big Deal,” a story about a girl who visits her long-distance boyfriend, whom she allows to mooch off of her even though she feels intellectually superior to him. “I wanted to be someone’s girlfriend, not their creditor,” Schiff writes. “What would Jesus do? Would Jesus lend his friend three thousand dollars? Of course he would. Would Jesus’ girlfriend ask for two hundred dollars back? This wasn’t my culture.”
These funny, on-the-nose observations might turn off readers who prefer quiet stories. But, the stand-up routine-like quality of Schiff’s characters’ thoughts lends itself to frank discussions of established dating norms.
Her explorations of grief and loss are subtler, and more touching. While her characters experience sex in a vague, nebulous way, viewing partners as a collective force, Schiff writes about loss in a way that’s painfully specific. In “http://www.msjiz/boxx374/mpeg,” a girl whose father died due to complications related to diabetes skims his search history, and stumbles on an Internet porn video of two topless women boxing. It’s a jarring image, one that makes her lost parent feel peculiar and flawed, and very human. The reader gets the chance to know him intimately -- more intimately than his family did when he was alive. Schiff perfectly elicits the feeling of confusion that accompanies loss, and leaves you wondering how to process the information you’ve been given.
In “Another Cake,” a college student returns home when her father dies and comments on the hospitality of others, who bring gifts and offer general assistance. But the narrator feels removed from the experience, and to illustrate her disassociated feelings, Schiff writes, “I made weeping noises. The guests chomped cheddar cheese.”
In this story and most of Schiff’s, the heroine understandably lacks agency. She floats along, her wit her only paddle. And it’s a ride worth taking, if only for the biting jokes.
The Bottom Line:
The women in Schiff’s stories are realer than real; armed with wry humor and strong opinions, their quips are as funny as their insights are tender.
What other reviewers think
Publishers Weekly: "Consistently and darkly funny, Schiff makes light of her characters’ dilemmas, but never belittles their genuine distress, resulting in a fresh, varied collection that will resonate with readers."
Kirkus: Schiff’s startlingly honest, deliciously wry stories herald the arrival of a beguiling new talent.
Who wrote it?
Rebecca Schiff’s stories have been published in n+1 and Guernica. This is her first book.
Who will read it?
Anyone interested in books that make them laugh, and books that center on the lives of powerful women.
There were film majors in my bed -- they talked about film. There were poets, coxswains, guys trying to grow beards.
“Kids get really scared when their dad grows a beard,” I said.
Finally, I had an audience.
“We could switch places,” I say. I picture myself ablaze with blush in the gym on Sports Night, cat-crawling across the volleyball court, telling a reporter I’m just proud of my body.
“So I would have to be on the school newspaper? Nobody reads that.”
“That’s not why we do it. We do it for college.”
“That’s not why you do it,” she says. Before I can find out why I do it, detention comes out of the building and turns the step into a skateboard ramp, a dangerous, bumpy thing.
The Bed Moved
By Rebecca Schiff
Publishes April 12, 2016
The Bottom Line is a weekly review combining plot description and analysis with fun tidbits about the book.