Friday is Valentine’s Day, a day of flowers, chocolates and wedding proposals. If, however, you find yourself — how shall we put it? — a little cynical about all this lovey-dovey business, then Dan Rhodes’s “Marry Me” is just the book for you.
In 80 or so very short — usually one-page — stories, Rhodes runs through a variety of Seinfeldian routines focused on love, marriage, infidelity, divorce and death. The book itself is utterly addictive, and you’ll find yourself reading one subtly gallows-humored vignette after another. Here’s “Fate” in its entirety:
“When it comes to matters of romance, my fiancée is a firm believer in destiny. ‘If fate has decreed that I end up married to you,’ she’ll sigh, ‘then there’s not much I can do about it, is there?’ ”
That’s probably the shortest story in the collection, while “Culture” may be the longest: “I was delighted to find a foreign girlfriend, and even more delighted when she agreed to marry me. ‘It’ll be such a happy day,’ I said.
“ ‘Happy?’ she said, looking aghast. ‘I don’t think you understand.’ In her endearing accent, she explained that in her culture, weddings were not times of celebration; they were desolate affairs that marked the end of youth and freedom. She was determined to adhere to her country’s traditions, so a few months later I found myself helplessly looking on as she wept real tears for the girl she had once been, while trampling a bunch of flowers underfoot, symbolising the end of even the slightest possibility of romance from her life. Her relatives, unable by custom to console her, glared at me and shook their heads, as if wondering how I could have done this to such a sweet girl.”
Throughout “Marry Me,” Rhodes addresses some of life’s greatest joys and worst traumas without ever getting overexcited about any of them. Words such as deadpan, unflappable, wry, ironic and understated come to mind to describe his narrative voice. But if Rhodes’s style is resolutely monotone, his imagination runs riot. In these pages, he covers marriage proposals, wedding vows, honeymoons, old boyfriends and girlfriends, sexual incompatibility, promiscuity, breakups and death. In every story, one romantic illusion after another is shattered. Here’s “Signals”:
“My wife handed me an envelope, and I excitedly tore it open to find a greetings card with a picture of some kittens on it. I looked inside, and in her neatest handwriting she had written: Thank you so much for putting up with me through my lesbian phase.
“ ‘What lesbian phase?’ I asked.
“ ‘Oh,’ she said, looking surprised, ‘it’s been going on for about two years. I thought it was obvious: the short hair; the dungarees; the way I wouldn’t let you touch me.’
“I was stupefied, but the more I thought about it, the more it made sense. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t read the signals.
“ ‘But never mind all that,’ she said, reaching up to ruffle my hair. ‘I’m back to normal now. I’ll go and put on loads of make-up, and we can pretend it never happened.’ ”
All this is funny, in a way, but look again at what Rhodes intimates. A husband who doesn’t notice his wife’s appearance or behavior. A woman who regards sexual orientation as a passing whim. The use of a cutesy card to trivialize both lesbianism and marriage. The notion that sexuality is largely a matter of cosmetics. Above all, the implication that the potentially life-altering is actually so trifling that one can simply forget it ever happened.
Rhodes’s dry, affectless prose is always double-edged: He chooses his words with care, writes without flourish and presents obviously heartbreaking situations, such as that in “Time,” as hardly worth fussing about:
“Sunset told me she was leaving, and I couldn’t hold back the tears. ‘I don’t know why you’re crying,’ she said. ‘We’ve only been married a few weeks — that’s no time at all.’ She explained that she had been married to her last husband for three whole years, and when she had left him he had taken it like a man. ‘There was certainly none of this business,’ she said, pointing at my wet, contorted face.”
Here, Rhodes is undercutting all sorts of conventionalities, chiefly that of taking abandonment “like a man.” The story neatly reverses the typical gender stereotypes, while again implying that marriage is really no big deal. Yet the resolute blandness with which Rhodes describes this and other marital disasters inevitably recalls the Jonathan Swift of “A Modest Proposal”: Just beneath the surface of the humor and without any overt tendentiousness, “Marry Me” portrays the ways we have come to trivialize love and commitment.
All the stories are told from a young male perspective, and many of them treat what an earlier age would call woman’s inconstancy. In “Challenges,” Oleander tells her husband that it’s time for her to move on to fresh challenges. “ ‘This has not been an easy decision to make,’ she said, ‘but I feel the time is right.’ She told me she felt privileged to have had such a rewarding experience as our marriage, and that her stint as my wife had helped her to develop a valuable set of skills.”
Rhodes is never blatant, and detecting the poignancy behind his scenes of married life is left to the reader’s understanding. Consider what is unspoken in “Mistakes”:
“On our honeymoon my wife lay beside me, writing a letter to her best friend. When she had finished, she asked me to check it over. I was glad to help, so I carefully read it through. Her handwriting is very neat, and her spelling and grammar are pretty good, but there were one or two minor glitches for me to point out. ‘See here?’ I said. ‘You’ve written “the most biggest mistake I have ever made” — but it should just be “the biggest mistake I have ever made.” And this bit, where you’ve put “it feels like a life sentance,” that should be “sentence.” I’d only caught one more error. ‘Where you’ve written “I dont know what I did to deserve this,” you need an apostrophe in “don’t”. ’ I explained that it was a contraction, and that it was the job of the apostrophe to take the place of the missing letter. She looked very serious, nodding just a little as she took it all in.”
Many writers would have taken 200 pages to suggest what Rhodes does in 200 words. Don’t we know everything we need to about this dry-as-dust, condescending husband and his unhappy young wife? “Mistakes” is a little tour de force worthy of Jane Austen.
Rhodes is the author of seven books, at least one of which — “Anthropology and a Hundred Other Stories” — must be a collection of short-shorts similar to “Marry Me.” He was named by at least two polls as one of the best young British writers and has won several awards. It’s easy to see why. Enjoy Valentine’s Day.
Dirda reviews books every Thursday for The Washington Post.
By Dan Rhodes
Europa. 174 pp. Paperback, $12