Steven Polansky's Dating Miss Universe
That Steven Polansky's Dating Miss Universe is the 1999 winner of the Ohio State University Press's Sandstone Prize in Short Fiction indicates an encouraging trend in that genre. One of the judges, Antonya Nelson, notes that Polansky's stories "deserve and demand to be read word by word, moment by moment, with senses prepared for surprise and delight." One might prepare the senses for discomfort as well, for the nine deceptively brief stories in this volume demand much of readers. This collection, Polansky's first, certainly surprises but disturbs, perhaps, more than it delights in that it leaves no human ugliness unexposed. Polansky is not only a deft storyteller, but treats familiar themes—love, relationships, brokenness, despair—with a brutal and piercing insight, at once wickedly humorous and painfully confrontational.
Polansky tells unusual, uncomfortable stories: a father hurts himself to spite his teenage son; a dead man bitterly assesses of the family he left behind; a teacher reflects on his questionable relationship with a disfigured female student; a husband tries to come to terms with his wife's mental illness. Other writers might tiptoe around such subjects, giving them sidelong glances rather than facing them head on. Polansky, however, is not interested in reader comfort. He brings to the surface the misery which stems from familial dysfunction, marital strife, professional failure, and loneliness; his characters continually do the wrong thing, continually fail, are continually in the wrong place at the wrong time. Polansky makes no attempt to shield us from his characters' inadequacies and embarrassments, but makes us ache as they ache.
Polansky's forte is complexity of character: his characters are neither good, nor evil; they show neither malice, nor mercy. Rather, they hover somewhere in between, torn by obsessions and resentments of which they are only half-aware. Polansky's characters refuse to change; they pile denials on denials, delusions on delusions, and frustrate with their perpetual indecisiveness and stubborn hopelessness, able to recognize the moment of epiphany, but unwilling to do anything about it.
That stubborn stasis makes Polansky's approach to a common theme—the search for happiness—unique. Though his characters want interconnectedness, they are ultimately unable to articulate or act upon that need. They hunker down inside themselves, giving up the search for happiness before they've even tried. The characters' pain and failure comes to define them, and life happens to them, pushing them from one experience to the next and meeting very little resistance.
Polansky establishes a psychological closeness to his characters, but not by allowing the characters to wallow in the self-conscious, flowery language of introspection. Polansky writes in sparse, gritty prose, drives his narratives largely by simple action and dialogue. As a result, we see into the souls of his characters though their thoughtlessness in action, through the things they don't say.
The narrative voice in each story, like that of all the book's characters, is clipped, controlled, and terse, at times giving way to a wicked, biting humor which delights at the same time that it disturbs and touches.
This first collection not only demonstrates a mastery of craft, but a mastery over it. Polansky is deserving of his distinction as a Sandstone prizewinner not only for his unconventionality, but for the gritty reality he creates as a result; his characters are more real, more like us, perhaps, than one would like to admit. Such a portrait of ourselves, it seems, is what Polansky intends to create. Unafraid to expose the truth about our essential ugliness, Dating Miss Universe confronts our mistakes, our transgressions, our failure to recognize our own pain, or the pain we cause others.