In my book, there are many different types of short stories. You have the Raymond Carver/Flannery O’Connor sort, which are usually fairly long. On the other end of the spectrum are collections like Ben Loory’s that I reviewed several months ago, where one story might be a single sentence. Jeremy Mark Lane’s While I’m Still Myself is somewhere in between, and at 127 pages, it’s accessible for those who love short stories or those who are interested in trying a collection for the first time.
Each story feels like a Polaroid picture: a brief instant caught on film that extends beyond the realm of the photo, and that, I think, is the collection’s triumph. Don’t expect a full telling of that instant, though, as Lane takes the reader to the brink of the photo’s edges but leaves off before anything more can taint that first look. This makes for beautiful little stories but also made me wish Lane had pushed a little harder and given me more than just a beautiful instant.
In my favorite story, “The Guest,” picture a sleep-deprived new father standing at the entrance of an elderly woman’s room in a hospital. She thinks she’s at an inn and asks him to add water to a vase of tulips because, as she says, “I always leave them for the next guests. Somethin’ I’ve done all my life and plan to keep doin’ while I’m still myself.” When he returns to his wife and new daughter, they change rooms and a vase of tulips is sitting in the corner. It’s a lovely moment amid several in this collection: a young girl escaping a mentally ill mother to see the world “while [she’s] still [her]self.” A young father visiting his ill mother and seeing a part of her he’s never known. A young man captivated by a girl in a diner and driving through the country to be with her.
What marks this collection as unique, though, is its question of the self. Two characters use the same exact words and echo the title, “while I’m still myself,” and it is that notion that the self is so changeable that we may not recognize ourselves on down the line that is both exciting (in the case of the young fathers looking at their children) and frightening (the old woman fearing senility and the young girl fearing mental illness). The jacket copy says that the book is full of brief encounters that change the lives of the characters, but I disagree. I think, instead, that Lane uses those encounters to discover the changes already taking places in these characters. The people they meet along the way are just the consequence of the changing course of their lives.
Buy your copy from Indiebound.