The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In Danielle Evans’s ‘The Office of Historical Corrections,’ the sorrows are personal but also deeply historical

What comfort is there in the truth? It’s a question weighed and refracted in a thousand different ways in Danielle Evans’s “The Office of Historical Corrections,” a magnificent, searing collection of six stories and a novella.

It’s a question engaged by narrators who loudly propagate their truth, and also a question contemplated silently, as in “Boys Go to Jupiter,” when a group of Black students attend a campus town hall with Claire, a freshman whose hostile messages and Confederate-flag bikini have roiled the university community. Rather than engage in a dialogue that would amount to a debate with white supremacy and defense of their very right to exist, the Black students refuse to speak, offering blank slips of paper instead of “rebuttal.” Their silence can be read as a refusal of any attempt to equate white supremacist ideology with other “controversial” student groups. With subtlety and a solemnity reflecting key events in Claire’s past, Evans offers a powerful refusal of the false equivalence. Silence is used again, deftly, in a flashback scene. The same woman who now voices ugly thoughts about her Black hallmate, is shown years earlier, slowly getting drunk and out of control with Aaron, the brother of her Black “best friend” — and the silence between Aaron and Claire, late at night, is a silence of caring and desire; a desire culminating in death and loss.

What struck me throughout the book was Evans’s courage in examining such fraught and inescapable points of intersection between Black and White lives. A plunge into this often-fatal inextricability is most fully dramatized by the novella that concludes the book. How much more comforting, visceral, immediate, perhaps rejuvenating it could be to simply write a whole world with Whites only at the periphery when they appear at all — a world that has, at its center, Black love, Black abundance, Black joy; Black ecosystems and topography; the routines of Black life and close relationships. “Sula,” by Toni Morrison, is an early and stirring example of such an artistic choice, a choice Morrison explained with the quote: “I have spent my entire writing life trying to make sure that the White gaze was not the dominant one in any of my books.”

Evans’s opening story “Happily Ever After,” is, at its core, about a mother and daughter relationship, seen over years as it absorbs the seismic impact of terminal illness. But this and other stories also cover a full spectrum of parallel and overlapping White and Black lives, while looking unflinchingly at the impact of multiple forms of violence and constraint. “Happily Ever After” overlays Lyssa’s grief for her mother with the day-to-day injuries of racism; in one example, Lyssa’s boyfriend Travis becomes a target for security guards simply for trying to help Lyssa by picking up her mother’s medications at a pharmacy. In “Happily Ever After,” the porousness between White and Black lives is most visible in the hospital, in the pharmacy, in the Titanic museum gift shop where Lyssa works, where grief is ever-present and never wholly private, the sorrows personal but also deeply historical.

Other stories, such as “Richard of York Gave Battle in Vain,” further illustrate Evans’s considerable range, particularly for original, affecting portrayals of grief and intimacy. In the story, a woman named Rena mourns the loss of her sister against the rom-com backdrop of a missing groom, a road trip and an interracial wedding party hookup.

Evans’s closing novella, also on the theme of grief, takes on additional resonance since the Jan. 6 mob attack at the U.S. Capitol. Plucked from the headlines is the novella’s white supremacist demagogue (who calls himself “White Justice”). Reminiscent at times of Octavia Butler’s world-building in “Kindred,” it’s a vivid, matter-of-fact, science-fiction-tinged portrayal of a fictitious government agency, The Office of Historical Corrections, which identifies and corrects the false historical records resulting from years of “fake news.” Yet the novella’s success as an immersive work comes from its steady focus on Black love — specifically, love between friends. Evans portrays friendship as a form of thoughtful and high-stakes debate, a deep engagement that can survive the more superficial competition that exists because of tokenization and the constant pressure to show, as the novella’s narrator Cassie does, that she “is one of the reasonable ones.”

One of the many narrative pleasures of the story, and the collection overall, is the true-to-life language of the characters; the quick, persuasive interplay of dialogue between Cassie and her friend Genevieve — (“I like it when we’re friends.” “You could have fooled me.”) — and Cassie’s interiority. Reconnecting with a White ex-boyfriend, Cassie thinks, “the do they know I’m human yet question that hummed in me every time I met a new white person quieted a little, not because I could be sure of the answer but because I could be sure in his presence they’d at least pretend.”

Another such pleasure, though, is the meticulously paced, suspenseful, page-turning aspect. Without spoiling the end, I can promise this book will make readers face the news with renewed emotion, emotion all the more potent for the devastation that history has wrought on Evans’s characters, and on all of us.

Chaya Bhuvaneswar’s story collection, “White Dancing Elephants,” was a finalist for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Debut Fiction Prize.

The Office of Historical Corrections

A Novella and Stories

By Danielle Evans

Riverhead. 288 pp. $27

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