REVIEW: I Will Love You For the Rest of My Life by Michael Czyzniejewski
There is a moment in every relationship — be it intimate or platonic — when the equal parties realize that they’re not so equal. In lasting relationships, those inequalities are quickly rationalized as endearing, and to a certain extent, this is how life works: co-workers, parents and bartenders are all judging you based on the cut of your jib. The problem is that because we are human beings, who learn and grow and become the people we wished we could have been, it can be a little ridiculous to assume that a jib is only a jib. Often it can be the expectation of an ideology that feeds on upward mobility and all those things that seem too simple to actually be true and, as the title of Michael Czyzniejewski’s new collection, I Will Love You the Rest of My Life, suggests, there is a looming finality behind all those aphorisms.
In this collection, a woman can’t find love, so settles for a monkey with five legs. A town becomes jealous when a gang of superheroes starts protecting them from evil. A man avoids a banquet being held in his honor by listening to a baseball game that won’t end. A couple campaigns instead of getting married. A metal band disbands. An astronaut catches her husband cheating. All of these stories rest easily in the wheelhouse of Donald Barthelme or George Saunders, but Czyzniejewski also takes his cues from fellow Chicago authors like Stuart Dybek and Peter Orner by infusing a Midwestern sense of mythology into his stories and not being afraid to wallow in it.
The story “Bullfighting,” for instance, proves this with an odd sort of grit. The protagonist’s son imagines a friend after the death of his father and soon the mother begins to believe in the friend too. She spends afternoons with him while the son is at school, sleeping with him and, without much awareness of what she’s doing, asking him for advice about her son. After realizing how useful the imaginary friend could be, she considers using his immigration status (he is a fugitive from Spain) as an excuse to get married, a line of reasoning that Czyzniejewski follows to the extreme. The result is heartbreaking and, to Czyzniejewski’s credit, seemingly within the realm of possibility. It would be easy for a less talented writer to slip into the absurd and miss the true texture of the story, but Czyzniejewski juggles grief and whimsy with a side story of espionage to reveal a mother’s inherent reluctance to be a parent.
This reveal and others like it re-occur throughout the collection to create a kind of non-theme that could be called Loved Ones Do Unexpected Things. The true charm of the collection is that while we’ve come to expect unpredictability from the ones we love, it never fails to surprise us. In the story “Space”, the protagonist reacts in a crushing and unpredictable way when he learns that his wife got a job they were both vying for:
When Meg came outside with the news, Miller feigned surprise, lifting her up in the air, twirling her around. He kept her up there a long time, just staring at her above him. “I can’t wait for you to go. It’s going to be awesome.”
The job they’re talking about is a mission to outer space — they’re both astronauts. And the language Czyzniejewski uses plays on the elevation of her status as well as the elevation of being in orbit, which is the beauty of this scene, but it also flips the roles of their relationship. The husband hides his true emotions because he feels emasculated, which drives the rest of the story. Once his wife leaves for her mission, he brings home a one-night-stand, and almost immediately, his marriage is ruined. The interesting part of all this is that the protagonist is aware of his mistake as he is making it, and yet, he can’t stop himself. Instead, he rationalizes his behavior with small lies, telling himself that if anyone sees the woman, he will simply say that she was his sister, who had been visiting for the shuttle liftoff.
It’s only when Czyzniejewski’s characters begin to lack this sense of self-awareness that his stories begin to suffer. The story “Hot Lettuce” follows a metal band (whose name lends itself to the title of the story) as they near the end of what might be their last tour together. In a scene toward the end of the story, the only female member of the band meets a fan who sees her as a musician rather than the sexual object she is repeatedly treated as by her band mates and fans throughout the story, but what might have seemed like a redeeming moment is thwarted when the fan eventually reveals himself to be just like the others, unable to discern truth from band myth. In the scene, the fan pulls down his pants and says:
You’re sex mistress to Thourgar the Castrator and his minions, Gudalla the Pulverizer and Demonico the Defibulator. You relieve them of purity and spray their seed across the universe so the gods will keep them rocking for ten thousand years.
The scene is genuinely funny — and Czyzniejewski is going for the laugh — but this is one of the rare moments in the collection where he leans too hard into the farce of the situation and forgets to acknowledge that this fan is a person with a life outside the ideology of Hot Lettuce, and no matter how familiar he may be with her music, he is still an adult talking to another adult, whom he has never meet outside his fantasies. Here the level of self-awareness, which is so powerful in the rest of the collection, is lost, and leaves the moment feeling flat and anti-climactic.
That said, the collection weathers these moments well — as seldom as they may be — because it shows that Czyzniejewski is not afraid to test the limits of his stories. In a way the experience of reading this collection is like walking through the laboratory of a scientist, mad at work, trying to cure the abominable with wit and guile. Overall, it’s a hell of a collection, one that I’m sure I’ll be returning to again and again.
I Will Love You for the Rest of My Life: Breakup Stories
by Michael Czyzniejewski