Jenny and the Jaws of Life

jennyThe biggest problem with Jincy Willett’s short story collection, Jenny and the Jaws of Life, is the cover. At the top, we have David Sedaris proclaiming this to be “the funniest collection of stories I’ve ever read.” The blurbs on the back talk about the wit and  the whoops of laughter. And those feet on the cover—one of them is wearing flip-flops with daisies on them. Was I wrong to expect laugh-out-loud funny? Sure, the funny might be tinged with darkness—those people on the cover are stuck in a sardine can after all—but I was thinking Dorothy Parker. What I got was Flannery O’Connor.

I don’t read a lot of short stories, but I do love Flannery O’Connor’s stories, so comparing Jincy Willett to Flannery O’Connor is a great compliment. If the characters were from the southern rural U.S., the opening story in this collection, “Julie in the Funhouse,” could fit pretty nicely in a collection of O’Connor’s stories. Her voice is different, sure, but the mood of the story would be just right. The trouble is that when I picked up this collection, I was not in the mood for O’Connor.

Still, not wanting to return this to the library unread, I decided to press on. At first, the stories were hit or miss. A few I think would have been misses no matter what my mood. “Father of Invention,” for example, was composed of some very brilliant little sketches that didn’t quite hang together for me. And a few were so good that they could break through no matter what my mood. “The Best of Betty” is a series of letters and responses in an advice column, and as the letters go on, we see the columnist lose her patience and her grip. It starts with letters like this one to a regular correspondent who suggested that readers use the cups of their old brassieres and set them out in your annual garden as little domes to cover fragile seedlings in their gardens:

Why the heck not? And hey, don’t throw away those brassiere straps! Kids love to carry their schoolbooks in them, especially once you’ve disguised their identity with precision-cut strips of silver mylar cemented front and back with epoxy, then adorned with tiny hand-sewn appliques in animal or rock-star designs. Use your imagination!

And this is early in the story. It gets weirder, and funnier, and it was probably the closest to what I was expecting from this collection. And I think it helped me “get” Willett’s voice somehow because after reading “The Best of Betty,” I enjoyed the rest of the stories very much. “Justine Laughs at Death” is also very, very funny, but it’s the kind of funny that you get when the main character is a serial killer who’s being driven insane.

Most of the stories weren’t laugh-out-loud funny, but there were some uncomfortable chuckles of recognition, as when in “Resume” the narrator admits to being the sort of person who would walk away from someone making a racist comment, but not indignantly to make a statement. Instead, he would pretend he had to go to the bathroom. And “Mr. Lazenbee” shows a little girl behaving in an unbelievably shocking, even evil manner, but somehow Willett makes it possible to empathize with a girl who shows no empathy, while never getting sentimental or squishy about it.

Overall, this is a very good collection of stories, but it’s probably best to ignore the cover. It just sets the wrong mood. And read “The Best of Betty” first, followed by “Mr. Lazenbee.” I think with those two stories, you’ll get the lightest and the darkest ends of the collection and maybe have a better idea of whether Willett’s stories will suit you.

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7 Responses to Jenny and the Jaws of Life

  1. I think the old adage of “don’t judge a book by its cover” is a good one, but in reality, the cover sets the mood for the book. It should work WITH the text, not against it. You can overcome a misleading cover and go on to read a great book, but I think it has to be a lot stronger than a book where the cover set the stage already.

  2. Jenny says:

    I absolutely loved these stories. I agree that “The Best of Betty” is probably the best one — and I’m sure you noticed the trick to the story, though it took me a couple of readings. But I loved them all. Bittersweet is my middle name! (Of course, maybe it helped that it contained my first name also…)

  3. Elizabeth says:

    I think promoting this book with David Sedaris might be a tad misleading – I thought it was a very good collection, but as you said, not exactly what I expected when I started.

  4. Teresa says:

    Meg89: Yeah, you would expect the cover to give you some indication of what the book is like, and there’s a dissonance with this one. I probably still would have read this if it had a more fitting cover, but I would probably not have chosen it when I did because it’s not exactly what I was looking for.

    Jenny: Does the trick to “The Best of Betty” have to do with the fact that one of the writers is called FPS? I did catch that and a couple of other hints that there’s more here than meets the eye, but I’m not sure how far down that rabbit hole goes.

    Elizabeth: For me, the problem wasn’t even so much that there was a Sedaris quote on the cover, since his humor is sometimes on the bittersweet side, but that he calls this the funniest collection he’s ever read. I really went in expecting belly laughs. I’m pretty sure they could have cribbed a more apt blurb from his effusive introduction. And I’ve seen photos of another cover that sets a less whimsical tone.

  5. Lesley says:

    I’ve had this one on my shelf for a few years, ever since reading (and loving) her novel, Winner of the National Book Award. I agree that the quote by Sedaris is quite scary and put me off the book a bit (could it really be that good?) and it’s still sitting on the shelf, unread. One of these days I’ll get around to reading it!

  6. Teresa says:

    Lesley: The Sedaris quote didn’t exactly scare me–it was just inaccurate. Funny is not exactly the word I’d use to describe general mood of the stories, although some of them had funny moments.

  7. Christopher says:

    Jincy Willett has just published a new experimental, metafictional story at Metazen ( accompanied by an interview on the Metazen blog.

    Christopher Allen

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