“Sibling interactions are always supercharged with history,” the writer Shannon Sanders told Catapult in 2020, “There’s always an underlying stew of subtext, shared memories (some treasured, some painful), and very deep familiarity. Every interaction between adult siblings presents a chance to get more clarity about the past.”
In thirteen stories, Company links the secrets, spats, and sorrows of the Collins sisters, the daughters of Atlantic City nightclub owners. Now in midlife, we meet the sisters living at a careful distance from their hometown and from each other. Each story is set in motion by the arrival of company—expected and unexpected—and that distinction is key. As Suzette Collins counsels her daughter Bellamy in “Rule Number One”:
Rules for company: Mop the foyer beforehand. It’s all right if your guests dirty it up with their outside shoes, but the floor should sparkle right up until that happens. Serve yourself last in your own house. Keep the powder room clean at all times, just in case someone drops by. Always have a bed made up with good linens on it for guests…But on that subject, don’t you ever drop in on anyone like that.
Company, Sanders’ first collection of short stories, emerges from these reflections. Composed on the heels of a 2020 PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers, she scheduled the publication around three new babies and her full-time job as an attorney. Like Sanders, many of her characters are Black professionals of dazzling capacity, whose email inboxes “practically spilled” into their laps. Yet she writes dropouts and has-beens with equal conviction, characters left to “twist in the winds of uncertainty.”
Race and gender dynamics are examined in “Bird of Paradise,” a portrait of a party celebrating Cassandra Collins, the newly appointed first black female provost of her university. The promotion puts Cassandra in the second-in-command position to Jon, the gladhanding white university president whose gaze and fingers linger a beat too long. As she mingles at the party, she detects false enthusiasm in the congratulations of her colleagues. In a disquieting series of cocktail conversations, Cassandra understands that her place in the administration is as a diversity hire. Her appointment is political, the administrators imply, a concession in the age of DEI. She’s expected to “amplify the brand” built by Jon, to crush action items but never generate them, and to conjure Michelle Obama in “sexlessly floral” dresses. One suspects Sanders intended the biblical meaning of Cassandra: helper of man. Grim as the moral may be, Sanders paces it gently, letting it resonate with the reader for a long time after.
Some stories are Polaroids, like the six-page stunner “Rule Number One,” while others crank like VHS home videos, taking long looks at family events in “Rioja” and “Dragonflies.” The mood of this collection is like your auntie’s parlor table piled with family photos: gossip shrouds the photographs, high school footballers symbolize car crashes, family reunions emanate family feuds, and newlyweds signify bad ex-husbands. The book’s cover illustrator, Kimberly Glyder, understood this when she drew a double decker row house, reminiscent of the Collins’s family home, in a thick gold frame. Even holding the book in my hand, Company feels like a family portrait.
As with photos displayed in parlors, the deaths, the drugs, and the assorted ugliness occur offstage. The stories are low on dramatic plot pieces; their momentum comes from backstory and character study. To Catapult, Sanders explained her aversion to seismic incidents “…for me it’s more interesting to focus on how [a character’s legacy] has driven things to this point.”
For example, the climax of “The Gatekeepers” centers on a tense Christmas dinner. Janet, a long-suffering homemaker, attempts to cook side by side with Blair, her uppity vegan daughter-in-law whose millennial wanderlust is a subject of suspicion to Janet’s generation. Blair spent her 20’s in Beijing, her Christmases in Paris, and has procured a passport for her baby. Tensions grow and comedy mounts as Janet and Blair negotiate the dairy contents of Christmas dinner. “Well, what if you skip the crumble?” vegan Blair suggests, as Janet goes to prepare her son’s lifelong favorite dessert. “Maybe you could just serve the berries themselves with a little brown sugar,’ she said with forced brightness. “I know we’d love that!”
Sanders has a sharp ear for forcing characters with different agendas to mingle, perhaps well attuned from her law career. Her dialogue mimics the rhythms of conversation between couples, relatives, and frenemies with delicious fidelity. If Sanders’s writing is frankly funny, she lets us in on the joke. At a swanky reception “…the torches gave off a warmly flattering aura, performing small mercies on the zits and crow’s feet of the faces in the assembled crowd.” Niece Cecilia’s brain is “richly associative and hungry for details… even after so many wild nights in the East Village.” Her cousin Mariolive is “fragile as a soap bubble.” With a family tree as leafy as the Collins’, the reader is grateful that Sanders named the catty cousin Caprice for easy recall.
The difficulty of writing linked short stories is that each story must stand on its own. Otherwise, shouldn’t it be a novel? But Sanders succeeds in creating strong standalone pieces. Nine of the thirteen stories have been published independently in outlets like Joyland, Puerto del Sol, and Juked, and each can be read apart from the context of the collection. But it’s more fun to read them together. At the outset of each story, one turns to the Collins family tree like a mad genealogist.
Sanders’s flair for home life links her work to a tradition of “domestic fiction,” a line traced from Alice Munro and Marilynne Robinson back to Flannery O’Connor and Zora Neale Hurston, whose narrative pace Company frequently evokes. In the work of these women writers, Sanders may have confirmed her own taste for the Southern surreal. Like all family narratives, Company is also a ghost story.