Jami Attenberg: Listening to Write

By Sarah Hoenicke for Guernica
jami_attenberg
Photo by Zack Smith Photography.
You think, because she’s so funny, so sharp, so sarcastic and constantly moving, that Jami Attenberg can’t make you sad. But she can floor you. Fiction like Attenberg’s—entertaining, witty, a swirl of happiness, hope, and disaster—is an escape from daily reality and worry. It’s also a way into topics that are rarely approached otherwise, unless by way of sterile academic argument. Precisely because they appeal to emotion, Attenberg’s stories render accessible those things we often can’t, intellectually, persuade people to see.

All Grown Up follows Andrea Bern, the daughter of a heroin addicted, musician father and activist mother. Andrea doesn’t want the things she’s expected to want—babies, marriage—but she doesn’t know what she wants instead.  She likes to drink, sleep with men, and, for some time, paint. As with many of Attenberg’s stories, All Grown Up doesn’t feel plotted. Everything is revealed seemingly at random as Andrea thinks back to her past and experiences her present. Because we’re moving around in time, we see the same moments in Andrea’s life through multiple lenses. This has the odd and wonderful effect of creating a multidimensional personal history for her that feels a lot like one’s own past: There is no linear quality to time; at discrete points in our lives, we view memories and experiences differently.

Attenberg’s descriptions are snarky, a bit in-your-face, but on point and always visual. They are much of what enlivens her characters. A “real” Italian man has “chest hair by the fistful.” Another character’s clothes “seem to hover around his body, barely attached.” And my favorite, Deborah: “gray-haired, bespectacled, wearing a witchy black dress with a smattering of black sequins, a delicious bosom, you just want to crawl up inside of it already.”

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