Maggie Shipstead is known for her novels: delicate webs of interlocking storylines and sincere female characters whose conflicts and desires are often set against the backdrops of international settings and WASPish men. Great Circle, shortlisted for both the Booker Prize and the Women’s Prize, braids the lives of a disappeared pilot, Marian Graves, and Hadley, the actress who portrays her in a biopic decades later. The novel marries frank, bare prose with the highly textured dynamics of her protagonists’ sentiments and behaviors. Seating Arrangements and Astonish Me depict an affluent family’s wedding dealings and the world of professional ballet, respectively, both of which are widely admired for their concurrent amplitude and subtlety. At the center of Shipstead’s work is a fascination with interconnection, and an interest in the ways her characters navigate arenas of unlikely linkages. Her mastery of convolution stems from an awareness of what it means to adapt to circumstance: “A human life is incredibly tiny and incredibly huge depending on what you set it against,” she explained to Helen Brown in the Independent.
It’s thrilling, then, to see Shipstead approach the short story with this same ethos, freighting it with some of the same complexities she brings to the long form. Shipstead’s first collection, You Have a Friend in 10A, displays impressive range in these variegated narratives, whether it’s MFA dude-bro culture in “Acknowledgments” or a cult-involved movie star in the collection’s title story. Her writing leans long—all of the stories but one run at least twenty pages—but as a result, Shipstead is able to construct fully-functioning worlds and then provide the characters within them the breadth to both breathe and grow. Her stories have a lived-in quality; there is the sense that characters exist before the first page and beyond its last.
Shipstead’s opening story, “Cowboy Tango,” establishes this precedent—it opens with extensive backstory, covers over fifteen years of plot, and concludes with the implication that more is to follow: “She looked at him while the next sad-sack horse got pulled out to the block, and he looked at her, and they wondered what was to be done.” Shipstead’s comprehensive approach is particularly impressive given her characterological scope. Even as Shipstead establishes a sense of vastness—through expansive timelines and narrative arcs, along with thorough biographical details (in her story “Lambs,” she follows each characters’ introduction with parenthetical birth and death dates)—her work otherwise feels restrained. Shipstead is unshowy, her writing vivid while remaining anchored in reality. Her diction is matter-of-fact, and her use of descriptive language is sparse yet strategic, favoring the unadorned to depict clear cut observations (“She drank wine with lunch, but he never saw her drunk”; “The house looked as it always had”; “Booze and chlorine, a faint gaminess she attributed to his being over fifty”). Shipstead carefully outlines her stories’ minutia, but her aim is always latitudinous precision that serves both the ampleness of storylines and her enduring characters.
“Souterrain” is undoubtedly the star of the collection; in it, Shipstead manages to weave together a complex, tightly-layered, generational tale full of calculated dialogue and an off-handed, amplifying use of free indirect discourse. But beyond Shipstead’s attention to chronology and schematic detail, it is Shipstead’s capacity to render relationships and their physical and emotional intimacies that most delights. She opens the story with darkness—physical and metaphorical, taking shape in the form of a blind patriarch, Pierre, and an accidental death, Lili’s—before setting out the historical and structural landmarks to expect: “In 1983, a girl was sent to buy tea in Algiers. In 1942, a woman craved butter. In 1927, a man bought a piano for his wife.” Shipstead excels at this deliberate excavation of plot, each moment of revelation, be it the unveiling of withheld information or a flash of characterological candor, reshaping our sense of where the story will take us. The gambits in “Souterrain,” are admittedly labyrinthine, but these sporadic divulgements ultimately form the tale of Lili’s true parentage and why it has remained untold.
Lili, the primary protagonist, believes that he is the illegitimate son of Pierre, as his mother has been Pierre’s longtime live-in caretaker—making Pierre a sort of surrogate father to Lili, if only by proximity. Shipstead often describes Lili in relation to the Parisian catacombs, which he has grown up exploring. His affinity for the underground is one of many traits that bind him to Pierre, who has recently died. Pierre’s granddaughter, Iris, is both entirely unaware of Lili’s convictions about Pierre but also romantically interested in Lili, who she has grown up with. When Lili and Iris reunite in the city after Pierre’s death, they eventually find themselves at a party in the public part of the tunnels. Lili has been resisting Iris’s advances, but in the nostalgia of the catacombs (and under the influence of Ecstasy), he acknowledges his own feelings for Iris, and brings her deeper underground for a moment alone:
The music faded to a distant beat and then nothing. He stopped in an open chamber where multiple tunnels fanned off into blackness. He turned off his headlamp and took her flashlight from her hand and turned it off, too. When he inhaled, the darkness entered his lungs, cool and inky. They were not touching, but he sensed her warmth. The Métro rumbled somewhere overhead.
Here is Shipstead’s writing style made manifest, in its compact, declarative sentences and economical scene construction, but there is also a glimpse of Lili’s own cavernousness as we come to understand the parameters of his vulnerability. Shipstead continues:
He didn’t know if he reached for her or her for him, but the feel of her overwhelmed him, the way her body took shape out of nothing. After a moment—more than a moment?—he unlocked himself, staggered away, his fingers trailing along the wall, every seam in the stone loud through his nerves.
The relationships Shipstead forges for her characters are always tangled; in each, she notes the gravitational pull two people can have for each other as well as every other force—secrecy, trauma, guilt—that complicates it.
The setting of “In the Olympic Village,” minus a few expository instances regarding each character’s athletic histories, is limited entirely to an American Olympian’s bedroom, where he and a fellow Olympian are talking after having sex. Shipstead refers to them only as “the gymnast” and “the hurdler,” and their surroundings are similarly unembellished. Yet Shipstead is able to craft a sweeping story exclusively from the fragments of moments that transpire after an intimate encounter between two strangers. Their talking progresses from failed efforts at banter to each party’s wandering thoughts regarding the lives they imagine for one another. It escalates as their conversation becomes more personal, a performance of the closeness each craves. As we discover in piecemeal flashbacks, neither of them has medaled, and the hurdler, the woman, asserts that men who receive medals are sexually desirable, while for female medal winners, “‘there’s something off-putting and unladylike about trying hard enough to win. Or about being that strong.’” The gymnast responds simply, “‘I would like you even if you’d won a medal.’” This answer seems kind, or at least kind enough, but Shipstead has written into their exchange the complexities of tenderness, as well as each character’s irresolvable anxieties about failure and performance, so that when the hurdler cannot accept this and rises to leave, it is sad but not surprising. For all their talk, their endeavor toward perfection—athletic and interpersonal—we know she must grieve alone.
Throughout the collection, Shipstead exhibits her expertise with charged relationships and intricate conceits. I’ll allow that her set-ups can at times feel formulaic (odd location plus conflict with family and/or lovers plus a redemptive yet reserved ending), but to my mind, this is instead evidence of Shipstead’s master-builder instincts. Her ability to span eras and continents, even if from the same bones, is a feat. If Shipstead’s slight over-evenness of tone and plot registers as flat, her commitment to bizarre symbols (carnival masks, grandma’s nudes) and social intricacies (stepmother/stepson affair) rescues her tales from predictability. The collection’s deserted island story gave me particular pause, given my hatred for both the first-person collective and the movie Cast Away, but “The Great Central Pacific Guano Company” is in reality about a group of nineteenth-century women’s unspoken resourcefulness and cunning, as they are forced to shift from traditional wives and childbearers to populating the lone surviving man’s harem. “Cowboy Tango,” beneath its disguise as a familiar western yarn, allows Shipstead to pivot toward a different take on feminine independence. She depicts a tenacious female protagonist and her years-long endurance of discord between her and the head of her ranch, another wrangler relentlessly pursuing her affections.
Shipstead’s reliable narrative voice and precise world-building are hallmarks of the novelist, but this collection affirms equal dexterity in the short story—particularly for those who relish in the expanse of the catacombs and pastures of narration, and the ever-present sensation of having someone irresistible to walk through them with.