The Seven Stages of Anger and Other Stories

The Seven Stages of Anger and Other Stories

By Wendy J. Fox
Press 53, 2014, 124 pages

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The complications of romantic partnerships are often explored in fiction, but rarely with the depth and insight that Wendy J. Fox brings to her début story collection, The Seven Stages of Anger, winner of the first Press 53 Award for Short Fiction.

Through several stories, and through the perspectives of multiple characters, Fox suggests that happenstance, circumstance, and inertia—as unromantic as they may be—can play a much larger role in how relationships form, sustain themselves, or die than we may like to think. As for destiny and fate, for the most part, they are the stuff of fairytales.

In “Zinc,” one of two connected stories, the narrator, Laura, reflects on the stasis of her marriage, which followed a courtship that “felt habitual before habit had even had time to form.” (The courtship, in turn, grew out of a greeting-in-passing at a student union.) Laura’s husband is devoted, kind, and decent, and he is trying his best to be a good father to their daughter. Nonetheless, Laura has come to find that “something about us and the everyday” has sapped the ardor of the relationship:

[T]he longer Julian and I were coupled, the more I developed indifference to the body. We’d been passionate once, but increasingly I thought of this like the messes that were accumulating in more and more corners the longer we lived in our house—when we first moved in, the immediacy of any kind of clutter was unbearable to me; later, it became inconvenient; finally, there was a settling.

As this story makes clear, “everyday wear” can be as detrimental to a relationship as open conflict. But is it an argument for ending things altogether? As she struggles with this central question, the narrator seems to be inviting us to do the same.

Paradoxically, the story “Ten Penny,” about a relationship never aimed toward commitment, is one of the most romantic in Fox’s collection, and perhaps the most moving. In the lovers’ first meeting, happenstance comes close to feeling like fate:

I met M. on the street. Just walking by. He was. I was. I saw him coming, there at dusk. I stopped for him, his long legs, his hands jammed in his pockets, head tipped down to the pavement.

He stopped and said, “Hey.”

I said, “Hello,” and we walked along for a while, like we were already friends, like we were going the same way but not saying anything.

He said, “Are you following me?”

And I said, “Maybe.”

“Good,” he said. We kept going, and he added, “Follow me a little longer, and I’ll buy you a drink.”

The narrator goes on to have periodic trysts with M., a carpenter, who visits her apartment late at night, after drinking at smoky bars. In her descriptions of their times together, Fox beautifully captures the varieties of longing that may lead to falling in love:

The window seat kept M. coming back …. I think it was the view that held him. Looking onto the city buildings at night, he said to me what he was trying for: the same thing as a high-rise—keeping his lights on and reaching toward the sky. I’d push my face into his shoulder and hold my head there until I found it, under all that sweat and smoke, the smell of wood.

As this passage shows, Fox has a gift for rich, insightful description, brought forth in all her stories but especially those set in rural eastern Washington, where Fox grew up. These stories are deeply rooted in place, as is clear in the opening story, “Apricots,” which begins, “As children growing up in the eastern Washington desert, the dry side of the Cascades, we learned to speak of rain the way we spoke of the dead: with reverence, with longing, without hope of return.”

In describing a dry landscape about to be ravaged by fire, Fox writes:

I remember the sizzle of everything, the way my hair broke off at the ends, the static electricity everywhere. My parents’ well was failing. Our yard was long gone, and the lilac bush slumped against the side of the house, blooms dropped and drying around the base. The strawberry beds and raspberries were paper. We had a plot of wilty potatoes, a cherry tree, and brittle greens, though nearby our southern neighbor’s heat-loving wheat fields glowed as gold as a pharaoh’s polished tomb.

Furthermore, Fox expertly describes how place forms and drives character. Take this passage from “Fauntleroy,” set in part in eastern Washington:

[E]ven at a young age, country children know something of the ugliness of adults. Country children are not kind. They live close to animals and the dirt, and they turn the idyllic forests and fields into battlegrounds. They learn to handle weapons, to slaughter fowl and four-leggeds. They are accustomed to hides and gasoline, and being out in all kinds of weather. And they learn to protect themselves, because they have eaten their pet piglets, watched their seedlings die, chopped the heads off of snakes with the barn shovels, and they have not learned to believe that they are any different, any less immune to brutality.

When the characters in Fox’s stories try to put country life behind them, tension between their past and present is inevitable, and she writes about this tension perceptively. Consider this observation of the narrator of “Fauntleroy,” who pays a visit to eastern Washington after leaving it for a neighborhood of Seattle: “I realized that I didn’t have anything to say to [my siblings], that I had rarely thought of them in the past year, that I had come to my parents’ home mostly out of a habit I was trying to break. / This is what distance does.”

The perceptiveness and beauty of The Seven Stages of Anger make it well worth a read, and it is clear why these stories were recognized and rewarded by Press 53. (For more on the press, see this interview.)

Would My Pick be Your Pick?

If you're interested in ________, the answer may be "Yes":
▪ Writing about the stages of, and tensions in, romantic relationships
▪ Vivid and insightful writing about place, such as that in the works of Willa Cather and Barbara Kingsolver
▪ Writing about family life and family tensions