A short story has the power to portray a single moment of discovery in the life of a character that, in isolation, may seem insignificant or trivial. Antipodes is a collection of eleven stand-alone stories that boldly capture such moments, supported with strong character-building and generous detail.
Antipodes is the latest collection by Holly Goddard Jones, whose previous works include Girl Trouble, The Next Time You See Me, and The Salt Line. Each single-word title, such as “Fortress,” “Distancing,” and “Shelter,” characterizes the mood of the story and creates a telling lead-in that draws the reader into the moment of discovery.
Most of the protagonists in these stories are women, many at a turning point in their relationships with current or former partners. There is a common questioning of whether there should be more to their lives, fueled by the uneasiness of having settled too early or waited too long for something. In “Shelter,” a pregnant woman resents the partying and drinking of her husband and their best friends, not only because she is unable to take part in it, but because she has outgrown it and believes they should as well. A subsequent crime becomes a triumph for her when it awakens them to the cruel realities of not being kids anymore. In “Distancing,” a woman isolated in a pandemic watches her cosmetic surgeon husband’s practice shrivel and their marriage sour as he wastes time viewing porn and hanging out in an empty office where there is nothing to do. Her sudden fascination with dirt causes her to reflect on the curious possibilities of menopause, an experience her mother once told her was “like a nice nap,” symbolizing her newfound readiness for change. In the title story, a growing sinkhole in the sanctuary of the temple where a woman worships is a metaphor for the emptiness she feels in her life. After she learns about a Mayan sinkhole used for human sacrifice, she gives herself permission to make a hard and irreversible choice.
The male protagonists in these stories endure the same moments of painful self-realization. In “Fortress,” a lonely furniture designer hosting a party where he feels alienated from his A-list guests retreats to his room, lamenting that he has become a caricature of his younger self. The video game designer in “Visitation” who returns home to live with his parents encounters a beastly character resembling a childhood plaything that now terrifies rather than comforts him, a metaphor for being time to grow up.
Jones is particularly masterful in building the intensity that leads to the character’s turning point. In “Exhaust,” a woman named Elise drives home with her husband after a trying Thanksgiving weekend with his mother Cynthia and is terrified by a white Impala that seems to be pursuing them. Stopping in a rest area where her husband proposed to her years before, she encounters a strange man who offers her a cigarette. From experiencing the “range anxiety” of driving an electric vehicle on a long journey to the woman’s momentary attraction to the smoking stranger, Jones creates a disturbing tension that mirrors the woman’s troubled feelings about her marriage. Elise feels a gradual ceding of control to circumstance and an inability to comprehend her husband’s sudden disappearance, elements reminiscent of Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find.”
Jones also uses physical detail to convey a sense of who the supporting characters are. Elise’s mother-in-law in “Exhaust” is an overwhelming presence who creates conflict in her marriage. “To be embraced by Cynthia was so intimate as to constitute a kind of violation: those enormous breasts, so evidently braless through the thin nylon nightgown and matching robe; the oily, artificial sweet scent of the bath beads she used each night in the tub; her damp lips pressed against Elise’s cheek, coming so close to her mouth that their noses nearly brushed like lovers in a movie.” In “Ark,” a woman trapped in an Amway-like sales pitch is intimidated by her hard-selling host. “As she reaches me, I’m hit with her perfume, a light, citrusy-herby scent that reminds me of a marinade I sometimes use on chicken cutlets. This is the power of Lauren: she can make a chicken cutlet marinade seem fancy.”
At the end of each story, the main characters ask themselves a life-altering question. Should I leave my family? Should I pursue this relationship? Should I ask this stranger for help? Should I spend money I don’t have to make myself fit in? The collection shows how everyday life can degenerate into disillusionment, leading to a hesitant desire to become someone different. Antipodes portrays such change as hard, scary stuff — the choices that life is made of.
By Holly Goddard Jones
University of Iowa Press
Published May 10, 2022