“The sun is shining / and the birds are singing / and because today is the very last day / they will sing forever.” These words, set against a cut-up photograph of a river edged by mountains, appear on the home page of “A Softer World,” a Web comic by Emily Horne and Joey Comeau that ran from 2003 to 2015. There is a certain subset of millennials who become misty-eyed when you bring it up, remembering how profound this comic felt to their younger selves. While I haven’t scientifically tested it, my theory is that the Venn diagram of readers of “A Softer World” and viewers of the Netflix original series “BoJack Horseman” is a circle. While these two seemingly disconnected media darlings differ utterly in style and subject matter, they share a tone, by turns ironic, melancholy and ironically melancholy, full of angst, yearning, insecurity, love and a healthy dose of self-awareness. Additionally, they share a core of very real existentialism masking itself (more or less successfully) with humor.
Raphael Bob-Waksberg, the creator of “BoJack,” has now taken this particularly millennial tone — and as a millennial, I do not say this with derision — to a new form: the short story. His debut collection, “Someone Who Will Love You in All Your Damaged Glory” (a title that seems straight out of “A Softer World”) will surely appeal to his existing fan base.
With 18 stories of varying lengths, “Damaged Glory” is deftly and confidently written, full of experimental fun. The first story, “Salted Circus Cashews, Swear to God,” about a nameless he-and-she who’ve finished a date and gone to his house, is very short, its text starting overlarge and getting smaller and smaller until by the end it is as minuscule as the ingredients lists on food packaging. This brief, two-page opener perfectly sets the tone for the collection, as the story, which seems at first like it’s about nothing, becomes an intense, anxious internal monologue about the perils of trust. “Short Stories” is a numbered list of brief near-cliches that mock common pitfalls of heterosexual relationships:
“3. ‘You’re not like other girls,’ he said to every girl.
“4. She told him she loved him and cared about him, and he was so dizzy in love himself he didn’t realize she was breaking up with him.”
Many of the stories have some sort of formal or fantastical gimmick, including one about superheroes whose powers work only when they’re drunk, and another about a couple planning a small and nonreligious wedding who get pressured by friends and family into including a host of alternate-universe traditions such as an expensive Promise Egg, a Shrieking Chorus (which is essential for the “Weeping and Flailing and Shouting of Lamentations”) and plentiful goat sacrifice. “Rufus,” meanwhile, is told entirely from the point of view of a lovable dog.
While no two stories here feel similar, there are themes that seem to preoccupy Bob-Waksberg, mostly involving emotional vulnerability or its lack, the ways in which humans shut themselves off from one another, and that deeply terrifying thing: love, whether romantic, platonic or familial. “Missed Connection — m4w,” which was originally posted by the author on Craigslist’s Missed Connections section, begins as expected: “I saw you on the Manhattan-bound Brooklyn Q train.” By the time we get to the second page, though, both the “I” and the “you” have missed their stops, gotten to the end of the line and still haven’t spoken a word. What begins as a story inspired by a fun fad ends as a depressing yet moving rumination on what it means to spend a life with someone — say, in a marriage — and never really know them.
While “Damaged Glory” owes a debt to the postmodern irony that permeated experimental literature for a time, it thankfully doesn’t dwell in cynicism. Quite the opposite; Bob-Waksberg manages to balance his ironic humor with a deep sincerity that continues to surprise and delight. While some pieces are certainly more successful than others — a couple of stories rely too heavily on their structural gimmick or go on too long without giving us a reason to care — the majority do that mysterious thing that good art can do: make your heart clench with feeling, your eyes fill with tears, your lips twitch toward a smile or all three at once.
Ilana Masad is a queer Israeli American book critic and writer and a doctoral student at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. Her debut novel, “All My Mother’s Lovers,” is forthcoming from Dutton in 2020.
By Raphael Bob-Waksberg
Knopf. 256 pp. $25.95