A few Sundays ago, as Will and I walked along 8th Avenue on our way to brunch, we happened upon two young women holding a stoop sale. As it turned out, both of them are novelists, and they were cheerfully remaindering extra copies of their own books (along with the usual clothes and household items) from their front steps. Out of solidarity with fellow struggling artists, Will bought a copy of each book, which the girls kindly inscribed. He suggested that I read one and he’d read the other, then we’d review them here.

I took The Long Haul, a slim, bitter coming-of-age novel by Amanda Stern. The plot is pretty straightforward: A young woman in college is entangled in a dysfunctional relationship with a musician. They leave college, move to New York, struggle for several more years, and eventually break up and move on with their lives. Stern has a definite gift for economical yet rich description, and her slightly nonlinear narration (there are a few switchbacks in the timeline) keeps the reader alert.

While I enjoyed the novel on the basis of the high quality of Stern’s writing, I was also struck by how misanthropic it is. Skies are always gray, winds are biting, hair is greasy, noses are runny, scabs are picked and bleeding. I felt grimy and cold the entire time I read this. Most significant for me was Stern’s device of not naming any except a few of her most peripheral characters. The narrator has no name, and her boyfriend is only the Alcoholic. In addition, there are the Therapist, the Best Friend, Horse Face, Fake English Accent, the Cashier, and so on. I imagine she did this to impart a universality to these people–we all have these characters in our lives to some extent. For me, though, it served to distance these characters and make them less real, and it even seemed like it revealed a slight contempt for them. I say this because, as anyone who’s met me can confirm, I tend to assign similar label-names to people whom I don’t like or don’t care to know. It makes these people more two-dimensional and keeps them at a safe distance (not a very flattering insight into my own character, but I never claimed to be the sweetest girl on the block).

Of course, I may be misinterpreting Stern’s intent entirely, but it is a testament to her talent as a writer to get me thinking long and hard about how people relate and cope in hostile or difficult contexts. I applaud her work and am glad to have stumbled across her stoop (also, she sold me a really cute pair of purple corduroys).

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