Book Review: Send Me Work by Katherine Karlin
by: Tegan Swanson
Katherine Karlin has worked in oil refineries, shipyards, print shops, and universities; and she sends the narrators of Send Me Work—almost exclusively female—into similar spaces. These women deal with an interplay of both contemporary social justice issues and ordinary, pedestrian conflicts, which Karlin navigates successfully when she refuses to rely on either for the stereotypical dramas they usually illicit.
In “Muscle Memory” the grief of a Hurricane Katrina widow and her daughter manifests not in funeral scenes, but in the cans of non-perishable food items the family has been stockpiling in a back closet. From the title story, which derives its name from the misheard lyrics of a Bruce Springsteen song, a woman spends the afternoon with a friend dying during the 1980s AIDS epidemic. Rather than discuss his homophobic father or the Kaposi’s sarcomas consuming his body, the two friends discuss fashion and make jokes about the song lyrics. Working on a fair-trade coffee plantation and surrounded by political instability in Nicaragua, an American in “Into the Blue Again” succumbs not to water-borne disease or violent revolutionaries, but a man who needs a personal trainer. These bends in detail or logic prevent both microcosm and macrocosm in Karlin’s literary worlds from becoming mundane, and they keep her off of a soapbox.
Like the twists in subject matter, Karlin uses non-traditional structure to ensure that her stories reveal extraordinary facets of the everyday. The stories rarely take place in a closed-circuit loop, coming in and out of the lives of her characters sometime after the beginning, and usually far before the end. She echoes this episodic quality in the structure of “Seven Reasons,” a numbered, sectioned story which circles around a suicidal hobo and his approaching train. Issues like misogyny and poverty have no easy resolutions, and Karlin does not pretend otherwise, leaving her narrators at refineries, in rail yards, or wandering through Orthodox neighborhoods mid-struggle. Although this technique occasionally left me feeling pulled out of the narrative, having turned the page only to find that the story had ended already, in stories where the final moments still provide some closure for the arc of the narrative itself, these nebulous leaps out of scene succeed.
As a writer in a culture hell-bent on instant gratification, I feel a sauce-pot-on-the-low-burner, creeping-tension-in-my-chest-cavity, ear-drums-on-the-airplane kind of pressure whenever I sit down to start a new story. I feel its me versus the 24-hour information cycle, both of us barreling headlong toward an ever-shifting line drawn in digital sand between old news, and news worth knowing. I want to bring stories to a meaningful life, one where characters act as mirrors of their surroundings, existing in an honest, often painfully, inevitable way; where specificities of place build an uncommon world contained not within 140 characters but within a few pages; where the ills of 21st century Earth have moved themselves in like clinging, unwanted house guests, all of them quietly disrupting the peace of everything around, no-holds-barred. Each story is a struggle, my out-of-breath creative mind searching constantly for a viable, if not slightly wobbling, bridge to follow forward. I spend my time trying—and often failing—to leap from the just-finished past toward our genuine, ever-vanishing present, one paragraph at a time.
Perhaps I am masochistic as a reader, but I love to be made wildly, incomprehensibly jealous by writers whose work embodies these aspirational qualities, and in Katherine Karlin’s collection Send Me Work, I found many moments to be wildly, incomprehensibly jealous. These quiet, modest stories reveal strength in their troubled narrators without turning them into martyrs or damsels-in-distress. Both the true and scrambled lyrics of Springsteen’s “song about driving all night” lend their meaning as an adage appropriate for the collection. These women of Karlin’s stories are both searching for signs of resolution in struggle and moving steadily forward through the obstacles of lives lived always in conflict.
Tegan Swanson is currently an MFA candidate for creative writing at Iowa State University.