The Best Girlfriend You Never Had by Pam Houston, 1999
The magic trick:
Collecting a disjointed series of anecdotes and memories to make a character study
Imagine the self-obsession of Lorrie Moore without her vicious sense of humor.
Imagine the relationship minutiae of Alice Munro without her superhuman ability to understand humanity.
If you can imagine that – and I’m sorry for your unpleasant assignment – then you’re getting close to this Pam Houston story. That I read it in a Best Short Stories of the Century (yes, I said century) baffles me.
It’s as if Houston collected all the clever things she or her friends said (or more likely wish they’d said) over the course of five years and then stitched together a plot that would allow her to use all these witty quotes. My use of “clever,” “witty” and especially “plot” in that sentence, though, betrays a loose way with the dictionary.
Am I being mean? Very much so. It’s not a terrible story. The series of anecdotes and memories does add up to a character study of sorts. And that’s quite a trick on Houston’s part. It just happens to be a character that is too busy humble-bragging about being mugged in the city to let us know anything genuine about herself.
And you say, ha, you idiot, that’s the whole point. That smug, self-absorbed person is the character Houston is trying to show. But I say, no, I don’t think so. I think the writer would rather dazzle with section-ending, scene-stealing quotes than consider the reader. Sorry for the angst. I’ll probably come back to this story in five years and love it. But for now…
The first time I was mugged in the city I’d been to the late show all alone at the Castro Theatre. It’s one of those magnificent old movie houses with a huge marquee that lights up the sky like a carnival, a ceiling that looks like it belongs in a Spanish Cathedral, heavy red velvet curtains laced with threads that sparkle gold, and a real live piano player who disappears into the floor when the previews begin.
I liked to linger there after the movie finished, watch the credits and the artificial stars in the ceiling. That Tuesday I was the last person to step out of the theater into a chilly and deserted night.
I had one foot off the curb when the man approached me, a little too close for comfort even then.
“Do you have any change you can spare?” he said.