I was a 31 year old single male living in San Diego, walking the tables of Border’s Bookstore when I encountered a book cover that I was so immediately and hopelessly drawn to, I had probably made up my mind to buy it in a second or two. It is unlikely the marketing folks at Anchor Books had me in their demographic when they published Out of the Girls Room and Into the Night–a collection of short stories by a new female New York writer. Yet I bought it without thinking twice. It’s also probable that I read half the stories late at night in bed after another night spent bracing the walls of my favorite bars drinking a pint. Those were days of searching for contact with other human beings, contact that either never seemed to happen, or never got very far when it did. We all have those periods in life, right?
It wasn’t just any connection I was after, but that this is the one who is looking for me too kind of connection. That’s what the cover spoke to me—a girl in a hat with the brim covering her eyes suggested an inner life separated from the rest of the world, intelligent, self-aware, introspective, perhaps a little lost or numbed by the modern world. Even with her face half covered, I saw something uniquely beautiful—I was drawn in and connected, yet simultaneously separated by a vast gulf. This is a theme that appears in some of the stories within the pages, primarily in the first story, “Mushroom Girl.”
If the cover snagged me, the fantastic title set the hook, and the combined jealousy and sense of competition I felt reading the author bio that Thisbe got her MFA at Iowa—that landed me in the boat.
Having read the book 17 years ago, to be honest only one story really had stuck in my memory, “819 Walnut” about a group of girls living in a house during their last semester of college that culminates in a wild blow-out night of pent tension, “There were twenty-two years of our daily lives, then there was a the weirdness, then the scream, then there was nothing Blank. Nothing. And then we awoke to daylight…” to the aftermath. A birth of graduating into the world, another common theme where characters experience an event or condition that will set them off into a new realm.
Despite only one story sticking to memory (which really is not saying much) the book as a whole never left me. I re-introduced myself to the book over the last couple weeks. The first story mirrors the angst of loneliness and seeking connections in a modern world. In “Mushroom Girl” a wanna be dancer in New York City captures the fascination of a video store clerk when he sees her on her stoop eating mushrooms from a carton. In “Way Back When in the Now Before Now” a 15 year old with the dragging-on presence of a mother dying of cancer in their apartment seeks the warm living comfort of her best friend’s brother upstairs. “Accidental Love” is about revisiting a best friend male companion following previous group camping trips. “Flowers in the Dustbin, Poison in the Human Machine” is about grade school-age friendships and the cruel games children can conduct on each other. Other stories tackle bulimia, sexual identity, soul-searching after bad relationships, the physical and mental afflictions we (particularly if you are female) experience.
The title story, the last in the collection is about a girl, Silver, who lives in Houston but attends a prom in New York with an old family friend Fernanda—set up of bad dates and the universally bad high school prom (be it Houston or NYC). At the dance a teacher comes around to make his stalking presence known to Fernanda. The two are clearly past teacher student formalities. Fernanda later brings Silver into the bathroom and tells her she has had an affair with the teacher. Now Fernanda can’t shake the doting teacher and that’s the problem. As the story wraps up, Silver observes all the girls in their prom dresses going in and out of the bathroom stalls, “out of the girls’ room and into the night.” In that image of girls coming and going she observes “the tragedy of it all right there—is that they may be saying you piece of shit bastard you think you can fuck me. But at the same time, they’re saying I’ll let you. In the same breath they’re saying, you can.” It’s the inherent societal conflict requiring females to appear simultaneously available and unavailable, a facade of being in control while internally being out of it. Another theme that is struck in many of the stories.
Since most of the stories are set in New York City it’s impossible not to draw comparisons to Hanna Horvath, the main character of “GIRLS” played by Lena Dunham. Out of the Girls Room and Into the Night is a more literary, pre-millennial “Girls”. My wife and I have been catching up on “Girls” via Netflix the past couple months so the connections are fresh. Thisbe Nissen graduated from Oberlin College, which is where the girls of “Girls”went to college. Thisbe Nissen went on to the Iowa Workshop to get an MFA—so does Hanna Horvath. Thisbe’s stories in this collection often echo the same sort of alt-educational background and left-leaning environment that Hannah was likely to have with her parents in “Girls.”
I can’t say that as I lay upon my deathbed I’ll be summoning this book to be brought bedside to take with me as Charon poles me across river. But books serve different purposes for different periods of our lives. These are good stories that read like a time capsule of pre-9/11 New York girls coming into womanhood. Yet they are universal as well, and have a life of their own in the context of my own twenty-something San Diego bachelorhood.
They are stories of youth, occasionally of childhood, but primarily of that early twenty-somethings separating from upbringing, forging their way into the nightscape of the adult world to claim a piece of it for themselves.
Thisbe Nissen has written two other novels, The Good People of New York and Osprey Island. She now teaches English at Western Michigan University. Because during that searching time in my life Thisbe worked to put Out of the Girls Room… out onto those Border’s Bookstore tables, I thought I’d take the time to give her a shout out. God, I miss Borders.