Stories that leave us with questions

In Dana Johnson's new collection, nothing is easy.

Reading the short stories in Dana Johnson’s new collection, I was surprised to find myself repeatedly asking the same question about the characters: What race are they? It’s a question I rarely ask of fiction: I generally assume that the characters I read about are white unless I’m told otherwise. When fictional characters are black or Latino or Asian, it’s easy for me to see that a particular moment, dialogue, or encounter is about race. But with this book, I found myself wondering if race, class, gender, and sexual orientation are a factor in the narrative—and if so, how large a factor.

In “The Liberace Museum,” Heath is a white, wealthy southern man whose home feels to his girlfriend Charlotte like a plantation house where her ancestors might have been slaves. Charlotte comments on the house, saying, “All that are missing are the darkies.” Heath, missing the irony, replies that people appreciate the house because it keeps them close to their history. He cannot see what is obvious to readers: that the full history of his house evokes not nostalgia but complex feelings related to slavery and current race relations.

At dinner Charlotte painstakingly works to meet the expectations of her hosts, even “sweeping her braids into a bun so that the Bolingers wouldn’t have to puzzle over her hair.” She knows that she is expected to “fold into any fabric” and “never call attention to the fact that any work was being done at all. It was automatic, yet exhausting, like a dancer’s hundredth performance in a Vegas show.” Heath is oblivious to her struggle. “You were great, honey,” he later says. “You al­ways make everyone feel so comfortable.”