On Karen Shepard’s ‘Kiss Me Someone’
Shepard’s stories are uncomfortable, truthful, haunting looks at women and their relationships.
Fiction | Short-Story Collection
5.3” x 8.1”
Review Format: Hardcover
Tin House Books
Karen Shepard is an unapologetic writer. The first piece I read from her was an essay on BuzzFeed about the illness and death of her husband’s ex-wife. The complexity of this relationship between the two women is revealed when Shepard explains that she and her husband met and fell in love when he was still married. The essay is one that stuck in my mind, because although it asks for forgiveness for causing pain, it doesn’t apologize for pursuing love and desire. It is a delicate balance to strike, and it addresses so much of what makes human relationships so nebulous. If you have any doubt about the boldness of this essay, just look at the string of comments below, dozens of strangers passing judgment on Shepard and condemning her for the audacity to want love.
When I picked up Kiss Me Someone, I was overjoyed to see that her fiction is just as fearless as that essay. The short stories in this collection are just as complicated and difficult (in a good way). Some of the best fiction is not easy to read, and the stories contained within are tidy in their technique but explore the messiest subject matter, the fears, the desires, that make humanity both full and exhausting. The majority of characters with a point-of-view in the book are young women, particularly Chinese-American women, and Shepard pulls no punches in exploring what it means for these characters to occupy multiple spaces, cultures, and identities at the same time. Kiss Me Someone contains a rawness and a hum of pain that sits with the reader long after the book has been closed.
“Their story bored her. Their infertility bored her. It was the same as a million other people’s, some of whom she’d met in waiting rooms, all eyeing each other, as if there were only so many babies and the criteria for getting one hadn’t been made clear.”
(from “Light as a Feather”)
I am drawn to ‘unlikable’ women in fiction. There are plenty of unlikable men in fiction that get praised for their destruction, their selfishness, and their unabashed individuality (Holden Caulfield, any of Jonathan Franzen’s characters, even pedophiles like Humbert Humbert and serial killers like Patrick Bateman), but women are not often afforded such leniency. Shepard lets her women characters be as unlikable as they want to be, and by unlikable, in this case, I simply mean unaccommodating, bitchy, and not ‘nice.’ In “Magic with Animals,” Kayla considers helping her estranged ex steal a supposedly valuable painting from an elderly couple who have always treated her like family. In “A Fine Life,” Chou Yuan expresses regret at leaving her father to fend for himself during a dangerous time in China, but when presented with the opportunity to build a relationship with him again years later, she struggles to want to do so. In the two-part story, “Fire House,” Jiu Ru, born under a dangerous sign, pushes against familial boundaries and pursues a sexual relationship with her half-brother. Perhaps related to Shepard’s romantic background, much of the collection features stories of infidelity, including the title story, in which a married woman named Natalie reconnects with Cullen, an ex-lover with whom she once had a passionate yet unsustainable relationship. It’s one thing to have women behaving badly and getting away with it; Shepard takes it a step farther and lets the damage and the irreparable consequences happen. Like the choices of the protagonists, the way the world responds to their actions is harsh and unyielding.
“The same summer I’d given my brother a blow job, our father had rented a house by a lake. I would refuse to leave my brother’s room when he wanted to change. I made him uncomfortable. I made him lower his voice. He tried various things, coaxed, bribed, and threatened until he got me to leave.”
(from “Fire Horse”)
My favorite story in the collection is “Jerks,” in which a woman reflects on her previous interactions with men and contrasts them to her current affair with a married man. This piece is quieter than some of the others; while other stories involve women making decisions we intuitively code as ‘bad’ based on our cultural values, this narrative features a woman doing something that many of us do: pursue love. The piece asks the reader to consider what differentiates a bad person from a good person who sometimes does bad things. What makes an action good or bad? The narrator tells the story of her life via the bad relationships she’s had with men who treat her poorly, either explicitly or implicitly. The men of her past blur together, because each of them has the blandest of white-men names, and they are seemingly harmless while doing an extraordinary amount of damage to the narrator’s identity: Peter Deckoff makes a crack about the narrator’s Chinese heritage in fifth grade. Greg Sullivan tells her that she’s cute in an ugly sort of way. Multiple members of faculty hit on her and make inappropriate suggestions. Supposed guy friends repeatedly slut-shame her. The narrator claims that the man she is currently with is not the same as the previous men, and is rather a good man in a bad situation. In a social climate in which men with bruised egos proclaim, “Not all men!” this story demonstrates that, yeah, it is pretty much all men, for even when men aren’t active harassers, they are complicit in a culture that repeatedly picks away at the feminine sense of self.
“After Ben and I slept together for the first time, he told me that he wished I hadn’t slept with anyone before him. Before I could begin to reassure him, he said, ‘Because, you know, I was so nervous. I mean, you have all that experience.’”
There are only two pieces in the collection that did not resonate with me, and they are pieces that are, in form, innovative and interesting, but required a generalization of content and voice. In “Popular Girls,” Shepard writes from the ‘we’ perspective of a group of rich high-schoolers with little discipline. Although the girls are named individually, they operate as a faceless blob (which is of course the point, the illusion of safety in numbers, the deindividualization that comes from trying to fit in), and with this comes the reliance on expectations in order to characterize a generalized group of people: They have fancy backpacks imported from Sweden. Their rooms are designed and decorated by professionals. They go out to clubs and flirt with too-old men. The build up is necessary for the devastation at the end, but the process of reading it was not as enjoyable as the experiences with individualized women characters in the other stories. Shepard incorporates another story that has this form, this time with a group of well-off housewives who may or may not originate from the same background as the characters in “Popular Girls.” In “The Mothers,” Shepard follows the same progression where she shows us what we expect, details that seem to come from Peyton Place or Desperate Housewives, and slowly unveils the darkness, revealing that these women perform these actions as if doing so will keep their families safe. Because Shepard is so clean in her technique, the stories are certainly worthwhile reads, particular for writers interested in playing with narrative form. For me, personally, it is easier to fall in love with one person than a group, and as a result these were not the stories that lingered with me after I finished the collection.
“What haunted them most later that night and the next day and the day after, when it became clear that all Daphne was going to say was that Charlie and his friends had gotten weird on her, was the way she had quieted. They’d heard belt buckles on the floor and the thump of shoes. They’d heard boy sounds, muffled, but at some point they’d stopped hearing anything at all from Daphne. And none of them had asked that next day which friends, or just how weird.”
(from “Girls Only”)
I read a Goodreads review of this book that gave it a low rating, because the reviewer had assumed that Kiss Me Someone would be a bunch of romantic stories and instead found a bunch of “sad” ones. It was a review that made me laugh. When it comes to Karen Shepard’s work, both her nonfiction and her fiction, readers seem very keen to trust their expectations instead of Shepard’s meticulously crafted protagonists. This is a collection that requires the reader to let go of her preconceived notions and fall headfirst into the stories, regardless of how uncomfortable the content. To relinquish control is difficult and frightening, but it is worth it for the sake of reading this exceptional collection.