City Paper is not for tourists
Telling the truth about the past—either our personal histories or our collective ones—is harder than it looks, suggests The Office of Historical Corrections, Danielle Evans’ new collection. The book, made up of six short stories and a novella, is not so much a correction to the record as it is a total revision of the narrative. Evans, a former American University professor who currently teaches at Johns Hopkins University, pushes her way into new worlds and arrives, fully realized, in half a dozen different lives.
The stories follow women, usually Black women, who, as she puts it in her acknowledgements, are “unwilling to diminish their desires to live full and complex lives,” even when that hurts. In two standout stories, Evans steps outside of those worlds. “Why Won’t Women Just Say What They Want,” a Wallace-style inventory of women harmed by a narcissistic male artist, is a pitch-perfect #MeToo story: The man uses public apologies as a tool for validation, convinced that “forgiveness was his to declare.” When he meets a surprisingly gruesome end, there’s no closure—those apologies haven’t created anything beyond speculation and hollow spectacle. “Boys Go to Jupiter” humanizes a White woman who returns to her college after a photo of her in a Confederate flag bikini circulates around campus. “Humanizes” here does not mean “makes sympathetic;” readers learn about the trauma in her past, but it neither excuses or fully explains her behavior. It isn’t meant to. What the story exposes are the utterly human traits guiding her: selfishness, narcissism, and a particularly childish lack of empathy.
But it is those women who are unwilling—and sometimes unable—to diminish themselves who are the heart of the book. They are women who “do not know how to pretend,” or women who knew how growing up and have now intentionally put that training aside. Some of them treat themselves, and especially their families, with great care; others, the thorniest ones, the most compelling ones, throw themselves at situations without regard for anything but what feels good. They are at turns admirable, selfish, thrilled, worn down, realists, and dreamers. Evans is a master of revealing the cracks in her protagonists with a single sentence: Lyssa can’t “remember walking around without suspecting that something inside of her wanted her dead.” Rena thinks that “for years that the meanness in her would be hers forever, except first, the hard, mean thing about her started to sparkle.” Cecelia doesn’t know if she’s “managed anything good or permanent or healing,” just “that it had previously been impossible.” And Vera understands that her transgressions won’t be forgiven, and that she will “need to let the whole of the murky country swallow her up.” The most magnetic of them all is Cassie, the protagonist of “The Office of Historical Corrections,” the novella which takes up the back half of the book, who moves through life daring the world to make her happy.
Cassie is a Black woman from D.C. who now lives a lightly unfulfilling life as a career civil servant. She’s a public historian employed by the Institute for Public History, a department envisioned as an ambitious New Deal-style program to put Ph.D.s and intellectuals to work combating the country’s crisis of truth. In her day-to-day work, though, she’s a cross between a tour guide and a put-upon fact-checker, constantly thinking about which corrections are too pedantic to make and which falsehoods are too deeply rooted for her to tackle. She believes in the government’s ability to bridge gaps in facts, she realizes, “the way that agnostics who hadn’t been to service in decades sometimes hedged their bets and brought their babies to be baptized.” She’s defined by her resistance to the role she has to play as a Black woman and by her contrast to her counterpart, Genie, the closest thing she has to a sister. They grew up side by side in D.C., constantly drawn together as the only Black girls in their school but often butting heads. For a few years, Genie seems to pull ahead of Cassie in both her personal life and her career until she shows up at the Institute, and suddenly the two women are back in the same orbit. Genie’s historical corrections kick off a tour de force plot that builds to an explosive ending. Evans is at her most perceptive and prescient here, behind a character named Cassandra, as she addresses the epistemological crises at the heart of modern life in this country. The biggest one: How do you tell the bloody story of America? Where do you begin, who do you include, and when is leaving things out a lie?
Evans is a master of prose, constantly spinning sentences that leave readers winded: When Genie sees a photograph on the wall of a diner, showing a smiling group of White people who burned down a Black man’s store, she says “That’s how easy it is to think you’re a person having brunch and realize you’re a hunting trophy.” Her command of language keeps her ambitious plotting grounded and makes her characters irresistible. Her work is firmly moral but never moralizing. Impressively, The Office of Historical Corrections’ stories all feel fundamentally finished, so despite their skill, the reader’s never left wanting more from the characters. If anything, you’ll just want more of Evans’ books.
The Office of Historical Corrections by Danielle Evans. Riverhead Books. 288 pages.