Fine writing transcends generic boundaries. Should we call An Incomplete List of My Wishes, Jendi Reiter’s outstanding collection of short stories, Southern fiction? Possibly, but only as long as we permit a Southern sensibility (however defined) to extend as far north as New York and Connecticut. Is it LGBTQ? Assuredly, yet the breadth of human response the book elicits encompasses far more than specific issues of sexual/gender identification. Is it historical? In part, but the 1990s reside still in many living memories and can comfortably coexist with the present. May we even call these prizewinning works short stories? Only if we allow that a short story need not necessarily tell a story, or that it can tell many stories all at once.
Sensitive readers will try to store these kinds of interesting and bewildering questions at the backs of their minds: An Incomplete List of My Wishes will ask us to reconsider them eleven times over, while it overwhelms us emotionally and beguiles us with its technical dexterity, its complexities of tone and points of view, its sheer humanity. ‘Humanity’ is one of those embarrassing words one doesn’t know quite what to do with these days. The glorious and long-overdue breakout of the suppressed and the ignored, the persecuted and the victimized, the hidden and the marginalized, means all-encompassing concepts such as ‘human nature’, ‘society’, ‘family’ and, yes, ‘humanity’ have been stretched and exploded and abandoned as contexts and identities and rights have multiplied. Yet ‘humanity’ is a redeemable concept inasmuch as it can be persuaded to include the truly human – all of us – while preserving and protecting our differences.
This is to say that An Incomplete List of My Wishes is far more than merely a ‘gay book’ – whatever that might mean – of interest solely to gay people; it is for all of us who identify as human beings. Its thematically dominant gayness is not a metaphor for something more significant; rather, it is one among many wonderful facets shown and lived in these stories, some of whose characters simply happen to be gay. Inhabiting these lives – the gay and the straight, and several points between and beyond – is our privilege. Stories like ‘Two Natures’ and ‘Julian’s Yearbook’, for instance, provide such an emotionally intelligent, immersive experience that they move us profoundly, broadening our comprehension and deepening our sensibilities – quite an achievement in fewer than twenty pages.
Around half the stories in An Incomplete List of My Wishes use the South (specifically, the State of Georgia) as a cultural lens through which to view other, more personal themes: family, faith, ambition, memory, violence, death, regret, sexuality (race is notably absent). Gayness (male and female) in the 1990s in the South could only emerge in a hostile environment, so that children and teenagers aware of the direction their bodies are taking have the added burden of concealment, an instinctive survival technique that worsens their confusion and dismay. Yet gayness can also enable, or at least permit, a sideways appropriation of the culture that does its best to exclude: readers of An Incomplete List of My Wishes will never look at The Little Mermaid or Splash in quite the same way.
There is huge variety here, much of which challenges conventional expectations. ‘Exodus’, for instance, the ironically entitled opening piece, is just over a page long, and is a reflection of sorts on loss and grief, of precious lives gone forever. Jendi Reiter is also a poet, and their* prose here possesses a poetic concision and allusiveness of language and image that convey more genuine feeling than many novels manage in a hundred pages. Its emotional resonances are held in deft details and small, often-overlooked words such as ‘polite’ and ‘sorry’, washed away in blurred ink. ‘Waiting for the Train to Fort Devens, June 17, 1943’, a later story, takes a similar approach to confront death and forgetting, the silence of men who have seen terrible things, and our compulsion to tell stories, to make sense of that which eludes reclamation.
Amid all its differences of theme and technique, An Incomplete List of My Wishes is held together by an insistent, unsentimental claim on our empathetic understanding. ‘The House of Correction’ (the allusion to Dostoevsky’s ‘House of the Dead’ is surely intentional), for example, a humorous and seemingly more conventional work, provokes a complex emotional response: we are surprised by joy for those who unexpectedly find freedom and flourish, only to be shocked and saddened by what life has perpetrated on another. Great fiction – like all great art – helps us to experience that which is hitherto inexperienceable, or only experienced lightly, fleetingly, unrecognized and unregarded. The writing here grasps those little moments in which life’s possibilities glance our way and hold out their hands before they vanish forever.
An Incomplete List of My Wishes asks us to behold these moments, to make sense of words and of lives. Jendi Reiter uses language, punctuation, emphasis, and context to extend connotation almost to breaking point, and often to the reverse of what is actually uttered. In the final story, ‘Taking Down the Pear Tree’, an utterly compelling account of a couple in need of a child, the simple line ‘Nothing hurts, you say’ is one such instance where denotation and connotation are at opposite ends of feeling, where the ostensible cause of the pain is the least significant source of anguish. This could be called free indirect speech, inflected with a semi-detached irony and a deep feeling for what is left unsaid – rather like the sad, haunting, kind smile of a despised uncle whose only impulse is to love.
An Incomplete List of My Wishes may only give up its secrets after many readings. Even then, I have the feeling it will never quite tell us everything it knows. And while some of its more arcane references and allusions to popular US culture will not be recognized by non-Americans, that hardly matters. Whoever we are, we can still be invited to cherish love and kindness whatever form they take, to sorrow for mistakes and injustices, to value people whose choice is for life, to enjoy the art of the short story at its most sublime.
Thank you, Jendi Reiter, for the invitation.
Sunshot Press | ISBN 9781944977207 (pbk) | ISBN 978-1944977085 (hbk)
* Jendi Reiter uses they/them pronouns