Maggie Shipstead's first story collection, "You Have a Friend in 10A," reinforces the extensive talent on display in her first three novels. The work is convincing in any setting and any mode, whether it be quiet years on a Montana ranch ("The Cowboy Tango"), exploration of the Parisian catacombs ("Souterrain"), or a showcase of celebrity-infused horrors in Los Angeles (the titular story.) Shipstead seems to move effortlessly from plane to plane, bringing trademark eloquence and humor to each landscape she chooses.
Even in a strong collection, there are standouts: among them here are "The Cowboy Tango," "La Moretta" and "Lambs." In the first, Shipstead wrings only brief sentences from her taciturn characters — Sammy Boone, a young wrangler; her boss, Mr. Otterbausch; his nephew, Harrison Greene — but the few words they do speak are more than enough to draw the reader into their world. A sorrowful love triangle proceeds, and the results are unpredictable. Sammy and Otterbausch speak to each other most clearly through the way they treat the horses on the ranch. Shipstead's control and confidence as a writer blaze in each line.
In "La Moretta," Shipstead follows newlyweds Bill and Lyla on a honeymoon that goes increasingly awry. Scenes of Bill and Lyla's European road trip are occasionally interrupted by what appear to be interview transcripts with an eerie, foreboding tone. "Listen, I already knew the marriage was a mistake," Bill asserts in one of these.
Lyla buys a mask on the trip, then refuses to take it off: "The mask blinked at him defiantly. Then she turned to look out the window and bumped her beak on the glass. Bill snorted."
Shipstead builds the tension gesture by gesture, some small ("Bill snorted") and some grand (later, Lyla ignores Bill's pleas and throws away their map). A tragic car accident jars the couple, and the readers; Shipstead uses cars in a similar manner in "Angel Lust." The narrator of "You Have a Friend in 10A" is named Karr; read in the company of "Angel Lust" and "La Moretta," the repeated sound of Karr's name signifies potential danger in these stories.
Shipstead's humor is present throughout, but sharpens exceptionally when she turns her attention to working artists, as in "Acknowledgments" and "Lambs." The second of these is stronger, perhaps in part because each character is introduced with the years of their births and deaths listed, as in a gallery: "Sasha Kranz (American painter, 1988-2035); Zachary Moskowitz (Irish art historian, 1954-2035)."
The year 2035 appears multiple times in this context; elsewhere in the story they are hints of mass catastrophe, including a scene with lambs and sheep as the story opens. The strength of "Lambs" is present throughout this brilliant, funny and occasionally alarming collection.
Jackie Thomas-Kennedy's writing has appeared/is forthcoming in American Short Fiction, One Story, Electric Literature, Lenny Letter, Narrative, Harvard Review and elsewhere. She held a 2014-2016 Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University.
You Have a Friend in 10A
By: Maggie Shipstead.
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf, 253 pages, $27.