On Michael Czyzniejewski’s ‘I Will Love You for the Rest of My Life: Breakup Stories’
Czyzniejewski’s short-story collection is inspiring, devastating, and funny at the same time, cloaking sorrow in playfulness and hope.
Fiction | Short-Story Collection
5” x 7.6”
Perfectbound Trade Paperback
Review Format: Paperback
Also available in eBook formats
ISBN # 978–1940430287
Curbside Splendor Publishing
I like a lot of books, but there are very few I’ve read that border on love. Michael Czyzniejewski’s short-story collection was inspiring, devastating, confusing, and funny at the same time, which is exactly what love is like. I picked up I Will Love You For the Rest of My Life from a book swap table at a writers’ retreat, and, as I devoured the first few stories, I realized how very fitting that was. Although non-writers will most certainly enjoy the punch of the collection, Michael Czyzniejewski is the quintessential writer’s writer. Many of the 29 stories contained within are tongue-in-cheek meta pieces that give a visible nod to the techniques the story is using. Other pieces take a clichéd set-up and push and push until it’s simply ridiculous and in no way resembles the familiar narrative the reader expected. No matter what angle he chooses to use, Czyzniejewski writes as if he’s telling stories to a bunch of bored writers, and, as a result, succeeds in creating stories that refuse the cookie-cutter formula that is too often found in contemporary fiction.
“In the moonlight on the edge of the road, I listen to the game, entering the 47th inning, midnight come and gone. All gas stations in town are closed. I wonder how long I have, listening to the radio, until the battery dies. I want to call someone for help, for a ride, to take me to a TV or another radio. This time, no one waits me out.”
(from “Man of the Year”)
Part of what kept me infatuated with this collection is the balance between playfulness and sincerity. When a writer constructs a story that is ridiculous in its reality, it’s easy to let that absurdity of the world fall onto a character and, as a result, paint that character as a schmuck. In most of his stories, even the really weird ones, the author treats his characters with a remarkable sincerity. The situations in which these characters exist are brutal and delightfully bizarre: Miller’s astronaut wife sees his affair from space and cuts off contact with him, a man who lost his testicles in a freak childhood accident wins a Man of the Year Award and can’t bring himself to go to the ceremony, Griffin searches for a girlfriend named Opal to match the tattoo of his ex’s name on his arm. Although the scenarios themselves are so out-there that they elicit a chuckle, Czyzniejewski is not mean-spirited to his characters, even when he’s putting them through the wringer.
“Into her ear, he whispered, ‘I will love you for the rest of my life.’ He walked away despite her calling out, and broke into a run, his house just a few miles away.”
The most sympathetic story in the collection is “All Out,” in which Mirabelle, a morbidly obese woman confined to her bed lives vicariously through the stories her sisters tell her. Mirabelle shares with the audience anecdotes about her sister Candace, who had a short stint as a porn star, and Stacy, who once saw Meryl Streep naked in a public shower in the 1980s. In a matter-of-fact tone, she recounts trying to date while she was still healthy enough to walk, and she wonders if maybe she regrets not trying harder. The quirky anecdotes about her sisters are juxtaposed with the great sadness of wanting to connect with someone but not being able to because of the limitations of one’s body, both physical and societal. Czyzniejewski never once presents Mirabelle as someone to laugh at, instead treating her with great care and respect. He forces us to see Mirabelle as a real being with a sex drive and romantic desires as she fantasizes about her svelte mailman Cody or exults in the touch of Zoe, the woman who comes to bathe her. These are moments that can easily be written heartlessly, with Mirabelle’s sadness served up to us as pathetic, but the author never lets the tone of the piece go there. And the author never once answers the cruel questions his readers are almost certainly thinking: How did Mirabelle get so fat? What went wrong in her life to make her how she is? The author resists the temptation to make the story about Mirabelle’s body and instead makes the story about Mirabelle. Because Czyzniejewski writes for the reader who has seen it all, he does the opposite of what other books, films, and TV shows do: he makes Mirabelle a full character who is so much more than her physical manifestation.
“I imagined his hands on me, callused with nimble fingers, so good at sorting, and while I entertained few illusions, I could picture it and still do. It’s the scar that makes it possible, believable, surgery like that for someone so unlikely.”
Really to break clichés, a writer really has to understand them, and Czyzniejewski is constantly letting his reader know that, yes, we’re in on the same joke. Although I love the stories in which Czyzniejewski shows compassion and love for characters who, in other contexts, would be mercilessly mocked, the pieces in which he goes full satire are extraordinarily satisfying. In “The Braxton-Carter-VanDamme-Myers-Braxton-Carter Divorce: An Outline” Czyzniejewski writes the classic post-modern white male intellectual novel in just a few pages. It’s a plot line any remotely well-versed reader is familiar with: a male college professor, plagued by ennui, has an affair with a young graduate student and in the process destroys his marriage and relationship with his kids. Czyzniejewski pokes fun at this tired story line by boiling it down to an outline, including entries in which the author speculates on reader response to the action. With each story, Czyzniejewski utilizes a different technique to question what literature is and what it should be.
“C. Epiphany: Hal Braxton-Carter remembers passage from Lewis and Clark Journals, where Clark, convinced he was shooting an elk, shoots Lewis in the leg instead, wounding but not killing him:
Hal Braxton-Carter likens this situation to his own, comparing himself, then Debbie, to Lewis
a) Considers theme of identity
b) Identifies himself as victim and hero
2. Audience does or does not make connection”
(from “The Braxton-Carter-VanDamme-Myers-Braxton-Carter Divorce: An Outline”)
With the exception of “Hot Lettuce,” a story about a metal band breaking up after a long history of abuse by the lead singer, all the pieces in the collection can be classified as flash. It’s impressive just how much action and character development Czyzniejewski manages to pack into just a few pages; it’s difficult to provide concise synopses that capture the meat of each story because these pieces are so layered and rich. One of the ways Czyzniejewski makes the language work double-time is by utilizing narrators that are coded as unreliable. In “Bullfighting,” the narrator is a woman who is trying to raise her son, Hunter, while dealing with crippling depression after the loss of her husband. Hunter creates an imaginary friend named Lewis, a Spaniard whose own father died in a bullfight. As Hunter becomes more and more attached to Lewis, the narrator begins to see him, too, and develops a romantic relationship with him. Her own loneliness threatening to consume her, the narrator takes her son’s imaginary friend for herself, damaging her relationship with Hunter in a possibly irreparable way.
The richness of this story comes from the two truths embedded within the text: the truth for the narrator, and the truth for the reader. In spite of (or perhaps because of) its shortness, the piece questions the importance of reality when it comes to finding love and healing from a trauma. Even when Czyzniejewski is playing with form, technique, theme, or what have you, the heart of the collection lies within the aching rawness of its characters. Despite the riskiness of some of his stories’ premises, the careful craft prevents the pieces from feeling gimmicky. For Czyzniejewski, the characters are at the heart of everything.
“Behind the locust she etched the word for locust in over two hundred languages, some I’ve still never heard of. For forty years, it’s hung in our living room above the long couch, and to this day, I can’t recall the word for ‘locust’ in any language except ours.”
(“Plagues of Egypt”)
Although the collection has the subtitle Breakup Stories, not all the pieces contained within are traditional romantic splits. There are, of course, several heterosexual breakup stories, and many involve a wife leaving a husband, which, after a while, became a little expected. What links the stories together is a more general sense of loss, whether it’s the loss of a spouse, a friend, or even a character’s sense of identity. This is a collection that is stimulating on both a mental and an emotional level, that will manipulate the reader’s understanding of the human condition in a welcome way. I Will Love You for the Rest of My Life is not a downer of a book, however; for even in the midst of all their sorrow, the stories still exist within a space that resonates with playfulness and hope.