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Jen Michalski's The Company of Strangers

Charles Holdefer

The Company of Strangers
Jen Michalski
Braddock Avenue Books, 2023


ometimes a single sentence can illuminate an entire book. In “The Company of Strangers,” one of 15 fine short stories from Jen Michalski’s latest collection of the same name, the narrator remarks, “There are so many ways to make families.”

Within the context of the plot, it’s a passing observation, one of many that the main character, a young woman in her twenties, must internalize to make sense in a messy journey of self-discovery. But more generally, it’s an insight that is dramatized in various configurations in Michalski’s fiction, where members of your own family might as well be strangers, or you might discover kinship with people you do not even know.

Family is fluid but it remains fundamental. In “Great White,” a gay man named Charles unintentionally but not unwillingly finds himself drawn into responsibilities associated with traditional fatherhood. It’s not something he anticipated, but powerful forces and forms are at play. The mechanics of narrative are made explicit in “The Piano” and “The Bowling Story” where romantically involved characters are referred to as X and Y; or A, B, C and D go bowling. The narrator announces:

“There will be some subtly crafted paragraph alluding to how the events in our lives are just bowling balls careening toward us, how we will get knocked down and stacked up over and over and, in all, one strike will mean nothing more to the pins than a gutter ball. There will be some subtle reference to the futility of it, the existential despair, and then grudging acceptance.”

This is not self-conscious artiness for its own sake because Michalski also relates what is supposedly the source narrative for “The Bowling Story” before its transformation into “art”. As a result the raw materials of memory actually stand out in greater relief, when juxtaposed with such artifice.

This kind of writing makes more explicit demands on readers, poking them out of passivity. For instance, in “Your Second Left Fielder”:

Let’s be clear: this story isn’t about Denise. She is a peripheral character. Perhaps everyone is, and that would make you the protagonist.

Most of the stories, though, don’t foreground their composition. The most powerful story in the collection is “The Goodbye Party.” It recounts a widowed father’s bumbling attempts to come to terms with his child’s grief as well as his own. This tale evinces a tragic sensibility that is atypical in American fiction, offering no sociological special pleading or reductive political determinism: rather, it’s the full-on Sophoclean nasty.

For me, this refusal to be pinned down (or more precisely, to pin down characters) is what gives The Company of Strangers its strength. In allowing characters plenty of rope with which to hang themselves (“dudes who are ex-cons on their way to becoming cons again”), Michalski in fact shows generosity, a combination a craft and psychological subtlety that is essential to literary fiction.


Charles Holdefer