“Worse Things,” Jenny Irish

“Worse Things,” by Jenny Irish
I am Faithful, Black Lawrence Press (2019)
Literary Fiction
Rating: 4/5

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In this riveting short story, an unnamed narrator keeps track of the small success that granted her independence while also keeping an eye on her distant social circle. To support herself, the narrator runs a phone scheme preying on vulnerable women providing phony testimonials for an all but certain to fail small business starter kit. Still, as the title says, there are worse things. Setting aside the harm she does to strangers to survive, the narrator attempts to be a nurturing presence to those who are physically near her. 

What most shines in this story, is the way it weighs discomfort against security in many of the relationships it portrays. The women in this story, while not all on the streets, are in much the same situation as the homeless girl—they know where they could sleep, but they do not know how temporary that situation is, or what the cost of admission that day might be. This story boils down to the adversity born of putting those things against one another on the scale and shows the depths that are so easy to slip into in the name of survival. 

A fascinating aspect of this story is the role that distance plays in it. Particularly, how physical presence switches on the narrator’s empathy. When a person is near her—the homeless girl, the gothy neighbor, her boss, Lix—she tries to take care of them. When there is a distance in her relationships, like with her mother, she is capable not only of forgetting, but also manipulating and betraying. 

Something I have observed in reading Irish’s work is the way she favors anonymity when it comes to her narrative characters. In this story she continues to experiment with that, but in a new way. While the narrative character is never given a name, she does slip into the personas of her fake testimonials, Crystal and Mary, so easily that they themselves become characters who inform the reader about the worse things the narrator must do to survive. 

If you want to read a story about surviving at any cost, then this story is for you. If you want to read a story with complex relationships between people and between the narrator and empathy, this story is for you. If you want to read a story that you will continue to contemplate after its conclusion, this story is for you. 

Bonus: Check out my interview with Jenny Irish at The Spellbinding Shelf.

Like cheese and wine, art can be best when consumed together. Why not try “Machete,” by Amanda Palmer with this post.

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