On Kara Vernor’s ‘Because I Wanted to Write You a Pop Song’
Kara Vernor’s collection of flash and stories has a unique voice that makes you listen, grabs your attention, and makes you hold on.
Fiction | Short Stories | Flash
Split Lip Press
Wyncote, Pennsylvania, U.S.A.
For the love of her book, Because I Wanted to Write You a Pop Song, Kara Vernor had me at the Alibi. This is the name of a bar quickly mentioned in the story “Betty,” but it represents so much more. At an AWP reading in Los Angeles, Vernor described the Alibi as that one bar every town has, and even if they don’t name it the Alibi, they should. This small thing shows how large the lives in her characters and settings are and how big an iceberg hidden under a little 250-word story can be. In 21 stories, averaging a couple of pages each, the book also quickly builds the argument that Vernor is a master of flash fiction.
The first sentence of the book hints of edgier notes than the typical pop song:
When you walk into a party with blood on your face, well, people will think it’s your blood. Funny how that works. Like clothes and perfume. If you’re wearing it, it must be yours.
(“She Could Maybe Lift a Car,” p. 3).
This is a common moment to the collection where a character finds humor and reflection in the middle of chaos and danger. In extreme moments, pushed to their limits, Vernor’s characters find strength in unexpected ways. They can maybe lift a car. They can laugh where they aren’t supposed to. They can pause to appreciate the sublime. She wraps these peak moments in humor and delivers quick strikes of insight that allow the character (and the reader) an escape hatch. In one view, the book’s title could be an apology. A character might ask the author: why did this have to happen to me? Oops, sorry about all that, she might answer. I just meant to write you a pop song. Or maybe at the Alibi, it’s part threat, part inside joke. Don’t mess with me — I just might write you a pop song.
In the titular story, the pop song represents a failure of intimacy. A miss with a boy who was too cool for school. He’s the one the narrator wants, but the subtext is she’s better off without him. These are the stories of teen longing, of an 80s John Cusack standing outside the girl’s room holding up a boom box, and all of us wanting to believe this will heal the broken heart. But these are also the stories of failure. Of things not following Cameron Crowe’s script, of longing going unfulfilled:
Then he walked away and left me thinking about all the galaxies that aren’t ours, all the planets we could live on but never will.
(“Because I Wanted to Write You a Pop Song,” p.11).
She can slow things down and zoom in on a moment, often taking us uncomfortably close. Some of it reminds me of Denis Johnson’s classic short collection Jesus’ Son, but without the drugs. The narrators of these stories often have a unique perspective and an acceptance of chaos that reminded me of Johnson’s famous character, Fuckhead. In particular, the story “Crash” directly echoes Johnson’s “Car Crash While Hitchhiking.” In his story, a narrator with a rebellious attitude finds a way to appreciate the agonizing sound of a woman learning her husband has died. Vernor’s “Crash” is a brilliant four-sentence micro-fiction that quickly moves to a climax where the narrator unapologetically finds unique beauty in a rare, but painful moment.
More often, though, Pop Song refuses to let the foot off the gas even if it means driving into the pond like what mysteriously may or may not have happened in “Prom Queen Found in Lake.” The boys and girls of these stories are not nice to each other. Even against horrible odds, the girls still keep their powers. They nervously bring us along, and we all enjoy the danger. In “Wine Country,” a woman is briefly tied up, all the while keeping a Mayberry R.F.D. kind of optimism. In the end, she drinks a glass of wine and daydreams about primary colors. Enjoying the danger is a way to protect the sense of self. Grace for these characters is that nobody can stop them from observing or from earning their personal insights. Vernor has found a unique angle to examine human experience, and it’s one that allows far more depth than typically contained in fiction this condensed. My favorite was “Visitor, Transistor” with its poetic images planted in the middle of a most inappropriate encounter:
I should probably be offended, because let’s face it, he’s older and at least twenty pounds overweight. But you’re gone from the phone, and his breath on my neck is a jungle. I smell large felines and photosynthesis and feel the tickle of a millipede. A siren sounds from somewhere outside. Or maybe from the movie playing. Either way, I prepare my mouth. I tell him, “Please, please, please, turn it up.”
This is a unique voice that makes you listen. Just like the first few sentences grabbed my attention, the last few made me want to hold on. It reminded me of reading Amy Hempel, wondering what the heck just happened, and how did she do it? Just like a pop song, there is a magic to why it sounds so good to the ear. Why it continues to ring long after the song is over.
You push into that angry ocean, the cold whipping your thighs, cementing your lungs, your mouth sucking the night for air. An oncoming wave readies to bury your head, and your arms butterfly forward, your feet kick free of land.
(“David Hasselhoff Is from Baltimore,” p. 64)