Joe Sacksteder is one of those rare writers whose work brims with both brain and heart. His debut short story collection, Make/Shift (Sarabande Books) pairs fierce and strange innovation with raw emotion, longing, and obsessions. From alternate reality game shows where contestants attempt to resist titillation, to high school boarding schools with catty, or perhaps violent, foreign exchange students, to beautifully smelling boys, to former fathers who play zombie video games and contemplate street sealant—Sacksteder’s stories span a wide-ranging and ever-engaging expanse of human experience. Unifying these disparate characters and places are a series of recurring moments that appear throughout the collection, not simply repeated, but transformed. Parents grieve the loss of their children. Musicians obsess over mastering difficult musical compositions. Characters attempt to communicate in ways beyond typical language—via visual art, scripted lines, memory-palace graduation speeches—communication funneled through something else. And though this layering perhaps wonderfully distorts or muddles said messages, it does nothing to dampen their urgency. In fact these other sorts of media lead to an expansiveness and multiplicity that spans the entire collection.
In the third story, “Unearth,” the narrator visits a friend’s childhood house to dig up a time capsule. When they arrive, the narrator thinks: “there’s something unnerving about a dead-end street. Nagging. Not a tidy cul-de-sac, but the abrupt termination of a neighborhood that seems hungry for more histories.” This passage not only provides a taste of the tight rhythm and elastic swagger of Sacksteder’s prose, but it echoes the sensibility of this collection. Sacksteder’s characters and his stories are hungry for more histories. They don’t offer tidy cul-de-sacs, but labyrinths of ravenous dead-end streets, constantly shifting, re-inventing, always being a little unknown and indescribable.
For example, initially the story “Game in the Sand” feels like a straightforward, if formally inventive, narrative. A crew is filming a low-budget action scene, and the story vacillates between movie script and more typical narration of the situation on set. But, as Sacksteder swings the reader between one fictional universe to another—from the ‘real’ world of the fictional short story, to the scripted movie—the line between fact and fiction, or perhaps more aptly put, between ‘real’ fiction and scripted fiction, grows increasingly blurred. When a shooting occurs, the characters and the reader are unsure if a man has actually been shot, if it’s movie magic or fictive real-life tragedy. Is the script still describing the actions within the movie, or has it shifted to script the actors on set? In this way, Sacksteder’s stories so often unsettle the binaries they create. A reader can never quite be sure what is and what isn’t.
The first story, “Earshot-Grope-Cessation,” so beautifully embodies these uncertain deformations in Sacksteder’s worlds. The story is comprised of recursive moments in the lives of Josh and his mother, Beth. Yet these refrains constantly shift, grow looser, darker, less literal and expected. The story tensely begins: “Josh Danfoss lost control of the Audi and was knocked unconscious before the car stopped rolling and started burning.” Later, this shifts to: “Josh Danfoss lost control of burning and was probably knocked Audi before they stopped rolling and started unconscious.” This distorted refrain embodies the chaos of the crash, while conjuring new and strange meaning, where men lose control of burning. Beth turns to music, perhaps as a way to grieve her son’s death, though with the interweaving and repeating storylines, time isn’t static, cause and effect don’t quite have meaning. As Josh’s car is crashing, as he’s losing control of burning, Beth is always thinking dolce as she is approaching a piano, learning Brahms’s intermezzo. She thinks “Dolce as skid marks—spiked—somersault.” She thinks “Dolce as don’t rush.” She thinks, “Dolce. As Beth. Beth still on the stage…still in the audience. Nervous—sweet—listening.” She thinks dolce as time compresses, as grief and music resonate, as Josh crashes to his death, as Beth approaches the piano, as Sacksteder sweeps us into an exquisite and strange song. Never have I read a story so musical, so hard to pin down, so elusive and haunting.
Although the musicians in Make/Shift remind themselves that “nothing makes a performance sound less passionate than passion,” Sacksteder’s characters and his stories are ceaselessly passionate. Obsessed, flawed, eerily human. In the penultimate story “Muscle Memory,” a high school hall counselor plays piano so fiercely she bleeds. The story ends: “It gets in your hands; it gets in your guts. And it never leaves.” Although Sacksteder leaves that “it” ambiguous, a deliberately missing referent, we understand that’s the point. “It” is so many things—music, passion, misery, language, art. Sacksteder’s stories. Make sure you don’t miss out on this outstanding short story collection. It gets in your guts. It’ll never leave.