“A person's a thing that is tricky to read, but it's trickier yet to feel read.”
Imagining all the ways that lunch could go with an ex-partner. Falling for your fellow scientific researcher while your wife is eleven months pregnant. Having to sit through your brother’s play that attempts to turn family trauma into “high art.” These absurdist adventures and more are what await a reader digging into this delirious debut from the creator of BoJack Horseman.
Someone Who Will Love You in All Your Damaged Glory: Stores. By Raphael Bob-Waksberg. Knopf. 2019. Hardcover.
How did I get the book?
I’d had this book on my wish list since it was first published two years ago, mostly because I thought the title was brilliant. I ended up receiving it as a present this past Christmas and decided to crack it open on a recent trip to the beach.
You can purchase the book for yourself here and support independent bookstores!
What did I think?
Love, heartbreak, and missed connections pepper every corner of these pieces where the characters struggle to render meaning from it all. For instance, one man spends a lifetime on a subway train—buying bags of Skittles from boys on basketball teams and enduring mariachi bands, break-dancers, and panhandlers—but never gets up the courage to speak to the woman that has kept his attention there for years. In another, a woman walks around New York and finds triggers all over the city from past relationships, “increasing still with every new significant instant spent with another significant other,” making it feel like a land mine. These aching people and more try to determine if they are really in love or just terrified of being alone; if they only love someone because they have reached a point in their life when they are ready to love something and that person was there; if, once broken, perhaps they’re not truly capable of loving anything ever again. Fear not, for Bob-Waksberg’s narrators continually work to convince these people that these worries are all very normal, and that they are deserved of what they crave (a consistent and predictable and boring love), even if it might hurt getting there. “All pretty words are a means to an ultimate heartbreak, a grand misdirection,” he writes in one piece, but then counters it with the assurance that even when love doesn’t work out, it leaves an impact. “Put to rest the fear that you were a blip in this other person's life, a footnote. What you did was important. You hurt somebody, and somebody hurt you.”
One theme in these searching souls is that there is a higher proportion of men questioning their roles in relationships; men who should be adults but come off instead as overflowing messes. Peter in “A Most Blessed and Auspicious Occasion” is terrified of not being able to provide the traditional (albeit nonsensical—marriage eggs, goat sacrificing, screaming choruses—this is Bob-Waksberg’s version of reality, after all) things that his fiancé wants for their wedding, an anxiety that makes him start to question the validity of his love for her. The narrator in “More of the You That You Already Are” can remember all of the yawn-inducing facts he needs to play Chester A. Arthur as an amusement park based on deceased presidents, but he can’t admit his feelings for his co-worker in the costume department that has now fallen for a Frankenstein-esque presidential monster. The men all over this collection are by-and-large the kind of guys, as one is described, who have “this really amazing party trick where sometimes he could go a full hour without even once being suddenly reminded of the paralyzing truth that his life was finite and unrepeatable.” They’re soft, but more so, they’re uncomfortable.
What Bob-Waksberg works to convey is that perhaps these men (and the few, admittedly more compelling, women) can learn to find comfort in their discomfort, that it might be the only way to feign “stability in an inconsistent world.” “When you're confronted with life you can either be cowardly or you can be brave, but either way you're going to live,” he writes. “No one can ever really understand the tangle of experiences and passions that makes you who you are. It's a secret collection, a private language, a pebble in your pocket that you play with when you're anxious, hard as geometry, smooth as soap.” Likewise, each of us comes with our own bag of issues, feeling like we’re normal and boring and fine, which sort of sucks, but is also, ultimately, totally textbook average. Remember, “The things that are the most important aren't shared: they are important only to us.” So maybe it’s okay to take the risk and open a can of cashews someone offers you even though it could contain a pop out snake because “in your heart of hearts you still believe in cashews,” and that’s more important than momentarily looking foolish. Maybe it’s okay to imagine yourself spending the rest of your life with every person you go out with because it’s too difficult to stop, or to fear that your last impact on the world will be a coupon offer in your email. Maybe it’s okay to overthink things, then wonder if you’re only regularly thinking things to let yourself off the hook. The goal is to get to the point of accepting that everything that happens is just one more event in a long series of stuff that occurs in between trying to step out of shadows of sadness. The hope is to find another human that gets this, but also who lets you know that in between all of the bad stuff, we should all also get to experience something once in a while that is wholly good.
🌟 4/5 — Very Good
The way Bob-Waksberg plays with form throughout this collection made me feel like I was rediscovering short stories. Pieces incorporate playing with text font and size, inserting images, and even the shift into poetry (which begets one of my favorite lines in the entire collection, “She'd climbed in his heart without thinking, the way that a kid idly tongues a loose tooth”). Here, a short story can be a Craigslist add, or a list of reasons to break-up, or a hypothetical crossword puzzle no one wants to solve. It can be everything and anything, which is exciting, even in the moments when the jokes can get carried away.
What Bob-Waksberg never loses control of, however, is the ability to cleanly and poignantly capture the emotions of his characters. Sometimes this comes across in truly cutting lines such as, “He takes a deep breath and looks at me like I'm a salad he just found a dead bug in and he's trying to figure out whether it's worth it to call the waitress over and send me back,” or, “You feel like you're a record store full of strangers: here they go, ambling up your aisles, riddling through your stacks.” In other moments, it’s more comical, like a character musing on a ferry ride from Staten Island to Manhattan about what things would be like if they weren’t moving away from a person then realizing the weight of that emotional baggage might slow down the boat, or someone highly anxious uttering how greatly they love an emergency. But it’s the best when it’s tender: the realization that “there are two kinds of people…the people you don't want to touch you because you're afraid you're going to break them, and the people you don't want to touch because you're afraid they'll break you;” the feeling of a kiss on your forehead and thinking of the graveyard of possibilities that have happened on your face in order to get you to this sweet, happy moment. This collection works not just because these characters feel a lot, but because you as a reader can so clearly feel it all, too.
Beyond the book.
Bob-Waksberg’s biggest creative endeavor, of course, is BoJack Horseman, an experience you really have to watch to understand. It will leave you laughing and crying until the two blend together. But sticking to the book, you can listen to him read from this collection online, courtesy of Politics & Prose, and can also read some pieces for free, including “We Men of Science,” republished in Catapult in 2015, and “Missed Connection-m4w” that was originally a Craigslist post. Would highly recommend all of the above.
See you again soon!