Separated by fear, the characters in the 11 tight stories feel a lot like us. They scurry for safety in a world in which cars are “big enough to kill a dozen people with one false turn,” and the false turns are around each corner. Throughout the work, Bender relentlessly succeeds in capturing the heartfelt distrust we hold for each other. An ordinary interaction in the workplace illuminates a fundamental the resulting loss of humanity:
“Earlier today, I had told her to rewrite part of a report. I said this in the most polite way one could when she had left out several important (and essential) facts, but she looked at me and blinked quickly, as though night had descended and I had suddenly become difficult to see.”
Today we vote in the midterm elections, but that’s only part of the process. While the issues of the day are front and center in The New Order, the way out of this mess requires more than electoral politics. In the final story, there’s a welcome hint at what path we might take. We’ll still be in harm’s way, but perhaps we’ll retain some dignity.
Go vote today. Pick up this book. Go hear Ms. Bender read on Thursday night, and consider what surprising action might make a difference in the world around you.
BOOK CITY ★ Roanoke: This collection feels like something you had to write, something that had to be written. What are its origins?
KEB: I started writing the stories in The New Order around 2014, after I finished Refund. The first stories were “The Cell Phones”, in a shorter version, “On A Scale of 1 to 10”, and “Three Interviews”; I was still interested in excavating economic uncertainty. I started “Mrs. America” in early 2015, in an effort to try to understand the psychological underpinnings of a candidate like herself and what could make someone embrace a vicious lie. Then Trump invaded the political conversation, and the actual air felt disrupted. During the campaign, and then after the election, I felt the chaos of the nation in my body, really everyday the feelings of fear and rage and sorrow about the events in this country. And the way that I deal with chaos, either internal or external, is write about it.
So the stories evolved over the next couple of years. “Where to Hide in a Synagogue” started as a short short after Charlottesville, a way to use absurdity to cope with the very real fear of attack. I wrote “The Elevator” after the Access Hollywood tapes were released, finding a situation that could capture the fear women feel after an assault. Expression isn’t a mode of control, but to set down feelings that mirror ones others have or to open a person’s eyes or to try to understand the cruelty of the world—the emotion one feels during writing is real and that connection between reader and writer so profound, I think.
BCR: It is profound. The Women’s marches were all about connections. People rushed out to the first one because there seemed to be no mode of control. The connections there led to action. For many, even that form of public self felt like a risk—and maybe a first risk—they had to take. What was your biggest risk in this collection?
KEB: I think the risk of any writing endeavor, which is hoping that your perceptions of the world, your truths, matter, that you can find a way to connect with the reader. You can’t think about that when you are writing, but that is always a fear.
BCR: You cover difficult subject matter, but that doesn’t mean that there can’t pleasure in writing about it. Which pieces did you enjoy writing the most, or perhaps which presented you with the most understanding?
KEB: All of the stories had moments of pleasure when writing them, which means to me moments when the writing felt real, when I was being honest to myself. I especially enjoy stories when I can delve into voice, such as “The Cell Phones” and “The Pilot’s Instructions.” I also loved creating the world of “The Department of Happiness and Reimbursement,” and the logic of that particular situation.
BCR: That world you created in “The Department of Happiness and Reimbursement” is frightening in that it feels like a very near future; we can easily see ourselves in it. The government’s oppressive response to mass underemployment is engineered by the same people (okay, men) who are unwilling to take action against the men and the system that objectify and harass women. “Me too,” is shouted into a void. Meanwhile we’re given sweets and a remote chance at winning a supersized HGTV prize house to placate us. What first inspired this story?
KEB: I started this story when I was thinking about nondisclosure agreements, and how people like Bill O’Reilly paid women money to just keep their mouths shut. And though the private sector controls language in various ways, I wondered—how was this legal? Or right? Why should women’s silence be bought by anyone, especially when they harmed them? So I started the story—but I also wanted to direct attention to the women who facilitate misogynistic practices, how women can support cruelty toward other women. So in this world, the women play a key role in facilitating this structure. It was really interesting and scary to imagine this world.
BCR: It was an effective imagining. Unfortunately the world of “Where to Hide in a Synagogue” doesn’t require imagination. Last week’s events again showed us that this IS our world. That story begins the collection with the sentence, “Everyone agreed on the name: the Advisory Board for Safety and Well Being.” Clearly everyone won’t agree for long. They will have different and competing desires, different fears to be assuaged, different paths to safety. The characters are hiding from the obvious threats–the shooter, the bomb-thrower, but the reader also gets the sense that under the pew and in the ark they’re hiding from something else. What?
KEB: That’s a good analysis, yes. The story was trying to excavate a fear Jews had about safety within a synagogue that was very clear to me after Charlottesville and is, horrifically, even more clear after the massacre in Pittsburgh. The story began as a 4-page letter describing ways in which the temple could be safer for its members; it evolved to an exploration of a friendship between two women, and the internal rupture between them.
BCR: That rupture hangs over the entire collection. Our responses to fear and our lack of control vary. And there’s a lot of fear out there right now.
We’re in an intimate space with danger and potential violence throughout the stories. In several, characters serve as both the threatened and the threat. What role do you see vulnerability playing in a civil society?
KEB: I think that in a society that calls itself “civil,” we need to look out for and protect the vulnerable. It’s interesting to me how this is such a low priority in this country’s politics, for all of its exclamation about “morality.” When writing, narratives are charged by putting characters in situations in which they are vulnerable to many things—danger from outside and within. The power of the story is seeing how the character reacts, endures, struggles.
The New Order is Karen E. Bender’s fifth book. Her 2015 short story collection, Refund, was a finalist for the National Book Award. The Visiting Distinguished Professor of Creative Writing at Hollins University, will read from on campus at 8:15 PM Thursday, November 8, in the Hollins Room of the Wyndham Robertson Library. She’ll read with husband Robert Anthony Siegel, also on faculty at Hollins.