Everything Here Is the Best Thing Ever is a collection of 16 short stories, all of them focused on (and often narrated by) wayward suburban teenagers and twentysomethings. Intentionally or not, there’s much about Justin Taylor’s debut collection that leans towards earnest generational portraiture, what Fredric Jameson called “taking the temperature of an age.” Goths, grunge kids and anarcho-punks emerge as nostalgic figures of a 90s suburban landscape. These are the bored young things who curate their identities by the bands they listen to, the mall accessories they choose to wear. The kids hang out, drop acid, experiment with sexual identities, find each other in twin-size beds and part ways ruefully. Yet despite their follies and privileges they are not altogether unlovable.
Occasionally something surreal happens — Satan drops by for beer, a session of witchcraft goes awry, or the world ends. These things do little to jolt the kids out of their familiar brand of suburban American ennui.
This is an uneven collection. Its best stories are not only gracefully written but also emotionally honest. Its worst stories feel precocious, rushed out from university workshops. At no point is craft the issue — no, Taylor is consistently precise and enviably lyrical in his ability to produce apt turns of phrases. A wan smile is described as “barely mak[ing] rent” and “coast[ing] into the station on fumes.” Jealousy buzzes on the tongue “like a sharp mint, or a blocked word.” His lyricism lies in his ability to give satisfying names to fugitive sentiments, and this has always been one of the joys of encountering good lyrical writing.
Where Taylor occasionally falters is in the tenor of the wisdom being shared. Towards the end of “Whistle Through Your Teeth And Spit,” a young character treats us to a pokerfaced indictment of Hot Topic and Che Guevera T-shirts and gentrification — a flat screed that recalls the taste of plastic-cupped rum & cokes and freshman dorm mixers. If there was satire intended, perhaps it could’ve benefited from a more brutal brand of humor.
Likewise, sometimes the hushed lyrical tragedy seems outsized for the teenage heartbreak being portrayed. Taylor’s characters are searingly earnest, possessed of a florid and introspective collegiate vocabulary. One of his characters, a fast-food restaurant worker, quotes Conrad as he obsesses over graphic reportage of Abu Ghraib, allowing manically italicized passages to intrude on his brooding thoughts about torture, cold cuts, and his girlfriend. “Tetris” starts off wonderfully strange: the world melts in a raging inferno while a boy plays Tetris and his girlfriend sleeps by his side. There’s genuine tenderness in this story when the narrator decides not to wake her up before the fire engulfs them. But in Taylor’s lugubrious treatment of the travails of bickering couplehood (they sulk over the narrator’s refusal to discuss the Bible), his lyricism becomes a little overbearing. In these scenes, as in many of the weaker moments in the collection, a lighter touch would’ve served well.
This may not be the author’s fault, but stories about landlocked youths are necessarily doomed to a certain willful myopia. Here is a gauzy John Hughes landscape where things deserve snark or earnestness according to the inscrutable metrics of teenage insecurities, and amid all the pop-glutted suburban malaise people try desperately to believe in something (it’s no coincidence that loss of religion plays such a central role in Taylor’s stories).
There are times when Taylor’s lyricism works perfectly and feels richly deserved. Taylor is most affecting when prying into unexpected and taboo desires. “A House in Our Arms” in particular has the emotional urgency of Chabon’s The Mysteries of Pittsburgh — a young banker tries to rekindle an old romance with Leah, a sculptor, only to find himself falling for an older man he met at a gallery opening. His vulnerability here tears past so much nice prose. In “The New Life,” a misfit high schooler grows enamored with his estranged childhood friend and his sister, eventually leading him to pursue witchcraft with an obese goth lesbian whom he simultaneously despises and identifies with. It’s during these moments of deftly-evoked yearning and otherness that his stories escape the numb suburban prison of brands and bands and Derrida books, as his characters often wish to do.
I’ll end by saying that I have conflicting feelings about this collection. I find myself equally charmed and irritated. Perhaps I’m too familiar with his characters to feel anything but trapped in these stories, all populated and narrated by rudderless American youths. Taylor writes from and about a demographic that encompasses myself, most of my college peers — and, I suspect, most of his growing readership. I mean this not as an oblique slight, but as something that might explain my uneasiness and unfair impatience. Perhaps this is the kind of claustrophobic lateral gaze that Horace Engdahl thought about when declaring, controversially, that much of contemporary American literature is “too insular, too isolated.”
Lastly, Taylor is talented in a way that seems effortless — a truly remarkable feat. It’s hard to overstate the control Taylor exercises over his craft, his economy in unfolding a story. And for all its flaws in limited scope, this is an essentially sweet, thoughtful collection; his characters are occasionally irritating but also mercifully un-self-conscious. They’re the deeply ordinary and earnest adolescents that many of us have known and befriended and fallen in love with, and for their youthful confusions, Taylor’s stories offer limitless compassion.
Kevin T. S. Tang recently graduated Dartmouth College with a honors degree in English, a post-bac in saying hi when you’re actually waving at the person behind him, and a M.A. in retracting his greetings awkwardly and running away. Besides his short stories and book reviews, Kevin has also published a translation of Huang Fan’s short story on Words Without Borders. He is now an MFA student at Columbia University. You can also find Kevin’s design portfolio at: http://kevintstang.com/