Chase Us: Stories, the new collection of short stories by Sean Ennis, reads like a dream.
That is to say, many of the 11 stories individually – and the collection as a whole – present so many unexpected twists and are so free of telegraphing and build up, are so immediate in their presentation of drama, and are so full of surprises, that the effect is what you might imagine it would be like if you could jump into someone’s dreaming mind. It is an impressive, fearless collection.
This is a series of stories in which the same characters appear, age from childhood to adulthood, and move, primarily, through the same part of suburban Philadelphia. But beyond that, the characters are unpinned from the constraints of reality. The characters reappear, but are sometimes recurrent in name only – their behaviors, their histories, don’t carry consistently from one story to another. There is, in many of the stories, a logic that defies the logic of our real world: A mother takes up residence in a greenhouse erected in a living room; boys form gangs and grow feral around an endless wall ball competition (it’s Lord of the Flies with tennis balls); mothers and sons go to war with each other (the sons wielding kickballs, tennis balls and bows and arrows, the mothers charging forward with cell phones held high); kids kidnap one another in local parks with no consequence besides eventual boredom. But, in the world of the stories, that skewed logic is never questioned, it makes perfect sense – just like a dream.
This is an amusing, entertaining set of stories. Yet the overall effect is not light and the abundant humor is a dark humor. Ennis employs his skill as a scene builder and his unique style as a storyteller to deliver a distinctive world view. It is a world view running deeply with a sense of disconnectedness and loneliness. The world of Chase Us is really two worlds existing in parallel: the world of children and the world of adults. The children are bored and lonely and scared. The adults are angry, defeated, largely absent, unaware of, and seemingly uninterested in, the experiences of their children. Reading Chase Us, I had to pause to look at my own children as they ran with their friends, appearing to have fun, and wonder just what world they are living in. What fears, what ambitions, what secrets, what risks, challenges, desires and failures rule their minds? I ask them, but can I really know? They talk to me, but are they really telling me?
The back cover description of Chase Us calls these stories “modern day captivity narratives.” Maybe this is what that description refers to: children’s lives take shape in a place, first, because their parents have put them there. Childhood friendships begin as the by-product of proximity. As children we cannot get away and we must make our way in whatever place we find ourselves. “Run,” the narrator’s father tells him at the end of the opening story. It’s his opportunity for escape, but he doesn’t take it. Stay in a place long enough and it’s inertia we fall victim to. I won’t give anything away by telling you that by the final story in the collection the narrator is still in the same place, surrounded by the same people, and he has grown into an adult himself; a father striving to do a better job for his child than his adults did for him. “No doubt, these are my people, for better or worse,” he says to us. “I’m not surprised to find myself trapped once again with them. Nothing new about that.” And what about us, we former children who are now adults? Are we here by choice or are we captives in a life we’ve built, thinking it was what we wanted; do we know how to make the others in our lives happy; do we know how to build happiness for ourselves? Are we connected to one another as it sometimes appears or are we more alone than we think?
Chase Us resonates. It’s an entertaining collection, it’s fun to read, but you will not escape the serious questions that it raises. I’m still thinking about it, still feeling it.