sat 20/04/2024

Danielle Evans: The Office of Historical Corrections review - what happens when history comes knocking | reviews, news & interviews

Danielle Evans: The Office of Historical Corrections review - what happens when history comes knocking

Danielle Evans: The Office of Historical Corrections review - what happens when history comes knocking

Short fiction that summons the past to put the present to the test

PEN/Robert Bingham Prize winner author Danielle EvansBeowulf Sheehan

There’s something refreshing about fiction you can easily trace back to the question what if? What if this or that existed? What would happen? What could? That question doesn’t have to send you down memory lane, wondering about roads not taken, or into the future, into space. You can stay right here, more or less in the present, in charted territory.

And arguably, to adventure there (here) takes as much, if not more of what you might need elsewhere: bravery, imagination, wit, honesty. Better yet, fidelity – to the way things are: not only what could happen but does. It requires a reality check, of sorts. 

Armed with all of the above, Danielle Evans provides just that in her second collection of short fiction, in impermeable prose. Across six short stories and the novella which gives the collection its name, she traces the contours of our often unreal contemporary landscape. The characters she places in it are recognisable but easily overlooked and, not incidentally, all women. The first story, “Happily Ever After”, sees Lyssa feeling the tick of her biological clock as well as the threat of the ovarian cancer that took her mother; she is recruited in passing for a music video, shot for a “second-tier pop star” at the replica Titanic where she works. The story, traversing her history – romantic, family and medical – dilates and breathes some humanity into her 10-second cameo as a sea monster. But there is a certain magic to her brief appearance in the video’s underwater fantasy. Not only is the pop star “radiant, larger and greener on-screen than she had seemed when Lyssa saw her from a distance, joyful where in person she had looked morose”, but Lyssa herself is “lovely and monstrous” as she arranges the gift shop tat: “casting tiny shadows, leaving the smallest spaces on her body all lit up with danger”. It’s the first of many, frequently comical transformations in the book, and characteristic of the sort of reality check it provides. Evans invokes histories (and she can summon multiple in a single sentence) not to close down possibilities, but to open them up. 

cover The Office of Historical Corrections Hidden or undiscovered reserves of defiance, like Lyssa’s, are everywhere on display. In “Boys Go To Jupiter”, a white college student finds herself become an overnight hate figure and an unlikely pin-up for a white supremacy she doesn’t believe in, after posing, thoughtlessly, for a picture in a Confederate flag bikini. Her new identity (if you could call it that) is a sharp departure from her past when she was practically sisters with her black next-door neighbour. But that’s exactly why she decides to embrace it, for the sense “she can still be anybody she wants to.” We see the aftermath of that feeling in one of the collection’s more speculative and entertaining stories, “Why Won’t Women Just Say What They Want”, about a “genius artist” who stages a series of elaborate apologies to the women he’s abused in one way or another before inviting them all to a new show called, unforgivably, Forgiveness. Masterfully, while making that artist meet a messy end, Evans rounds off this tall tale with the seemingly vacuous “Model/Actress” he dated, whom he belittles by remembering her as “My little lady of ruthless ambition”. Back then, she offered her own forgiveness by making him none the wiser, “knowing that there was still some freedom in the way he did not fathom yet how real and how necessary her ruthlessness would be.”

Other stories tango a little more closely with the reality of what you cannot change. In one of the collection’s best, “Richard of York Gave Battle In Vain”, a conflict photographer finds herself on a wild goose chase when a bridegroom, a Peace Corps worker she was briefly stuck in Ghana with, runs off the morning of his wedding. The address she gives the bride turns out to be the old house of her sister who was murdered by her husband – not only the first that came to mind when asked where the groom was, but (in the sort of show-stopping line Evans is good at) “always the first thing that comes to mind”. The story might have less factual detail than “Alcatraz”, about a daughter helping her mother hopelessly seek pardon for her grandfather’s mistaken discharge, but it’s all the more moving for its knowledge of how some transformations, like those of grief or trauma or getting older or being jilted, are thrust on you: we might be stuck with our sense of change, anything could happen. “Anything Could Disappear” – the penultimate story which follows Vera, hard hit by the Great Recession, as she constructs a new life on drug money with a child she finds on the bus – doesn’t end so much as stall. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that stickers (and plaques, which are basically just elaborate stickers) are the weapon of choice for the workers at The Institute of Public History, the imaginary institution set up to “protect the historical record” that Evans inserts into the middle of America’s culture wars in the collection’s real tour de force, its closing novella.

Besides anything else, “The Office of Historical Corrections” (a nickname the workers reappropriate from a disparaging op-ed) is, like a lot of recent writing by women of colour, an examination of a black female friendship. Via different, highly precocious and then aborted routes in academia, friendly rivals Cassie and Genie end up briefly overlapping at the Institute. But whereas Cassie holds onto her job by following the numerous guidelines, which limit her somewhat (we see her affix a corrective sticker to an erroneous Juneteenth celebration cake), Genie cuts her career short by not toeing the line or sitting on the fence. When Cassie is sent to a small town in Wisconsin to correct one of Genie’s corrections – a list of perpetrators she adds to a plaque marking an arson attack on a black-owned business in the Thirties – she becomes embroiled in a larger investigation, which looks likely to unravel the whole (literally) confused legacy of race in America.

The plotting is excellent, but the real joy is in the tangents: Cassie’s grievances with the hollowing out of higher education, with certainties about “what American stands for”, Midwestern bonhomie, her boyfriend, her not-quite-ex, Genevieve. Her frustration with not being able to say who’s at fault for their frayed friendship. Their disagreement questions what the point of all these corrections is. As one of the people the pair interviews asks, if the truth does come out, “Does it make a difference?”, “What would it matter?”, What would it change? Minds, perhaps. But minds are harder to change than cakes, as the story’s outcome shows. And yet, and yet: the potential lingers, and that potential – that what if?” – might just be enough to change history as we’ve known it.


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