Glimmer Train Winter 2015: “If She Doesn’t Answer” by David Ebenbach

On occasion, you need to reclaim your love of reading. It’s easy to get bogged down in what you’re supposed to read, or what’s good for you to read. You forget why you even bother in the first place. Unlike other, good Glimmer Train offerings, “If She Doesn’t Answer” fills me with the urge to scream and tell the world how fuckin’ great this story is. That’s hard to do when writing a reasoned critique. So imagine me typing all this with my hair on fire, my eyes bulging, and my fingers quicker than lightning, if you want to get a sense of how this short story excites me.

I do mean short here. “If She Doesn’t Answer” is a shot of anxious energy. It bottles in three tight pages how terrifying the modern world can let us become in the midst of so many “conveniences.” Our protagonist hears her house phone ring, and dreads bad news about her mother on the other end. Only the phone doesn’t stop ringing. Her cell phone chimes. And it doesn’t stop chiming. The strangeness only builds from there…
Shared experiences help support the story’s increasing tension. You don’t need soliloquies to understand why a character fears her mother’s death. No news is good news, as people say, though they shouldn’t. There are details and backstory to define this heroine, but exposition’s here for pacing reasons as opposed to scene-setting ones. The protagonist’s past could be anyone’s past. I saw, online, today, a commenter discuss how text chimes inspire excitement in him, but the same phone’s ringing fills him with dread. “If She Doesn’t Answer” brings that sentiment to its mind-bending, yet logical, endpoint. No matter how many “unnatural” gadgets we surround ourselves with, we can never escape.
The only downside to “If She Doesn’t Answer” is its long sentences. Ultimately, the story’s engaging and impactful enough to overcome this. Each time I drifted off for a minute, I went right back to reading. I stayed hooked throughout. My hands were glued to the pages, but I can’t say the same for my eyes. The sentences carry some bad habits. They change subjects and topics halfway through, especially during backstory. The tale’s third sentence tells us, “It’s an old phone, the kind people used to mount to kitchen walls when she was a kid; she remembers the spiral cord tethering her to the wall back then, talking to her crazy grandmother, who wouldn’t leave the house and who feared everyone and had to talk about it,” (Ebenbach, 219). Even if you replace the semicolon with a period, on a first read it appears that the spiral cord’s talking to the grandmother. So maybe it’s for the best that the reader puts their own self (and past) in the protagonist’s place. In the end, I only cared about what happened in the present story, which may have been Ebenbach’s point.
David Ebenbach has some new work out, including the story collection The Guy We Didn’t Invite to the Orgy. You can find his work in a variety of magazines, including some online samplings here. I know I often put the “Interested in this story? Buy it and many others here!” tag at the end of these reviews. There’s no sense of obligation here. Go read this! GO! IT’S SO GOOD!

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