Perfect Conditions by Vanessa Blakeslee
Curbside Splendor Publishing, 2018; 208 pp
Reviewed by Kelly Lucero
Vanessa Blakeslee has been the recipient of several awards, including the 2016 IPPY Bronze Medal in Literary Fiction and the 2014 IPPY Gold Medal in Short Fiction. With her latest collection of short stories, Perfect Conditions, Blakeslee will likely add another award to her collection. Perfect Conditions is, in a word, lonely. The characters that Blakeslee creates are as complex as they are interesting. The one commonality that all of the short stories in this collection seem to share is that the characters are all lost in some way or another. This theme not only ties the stories to each other, but it also relates to the reader, as it is true to the human experience.
Perfect Conditions opens with the story titled “Trapped.” This story deliberates on the loneliness and fear of living in a post-apocalyptic world. “Trapped” begins with the image of bodies made of straw, effigies of the speaker’s relatives. Because Blakeslee does not initially state that this world is post-apocalyptic, the image is strange, leaving the reader with a sense doom. As the narrative progresses, the loneliness that the speaker experiences becomes clear. He deliberates on life, stating:
What they don’t tell you is you can live without hope. When you let go of that, fear dissolves as well. But then what—do I want to spend my days hunting and trapping? Am I capable of killing, even to defend myself? And then when does the killing end?
For the speaker in this scenario, existence in itself is hopeless. At this point, life has become solely about survival and everything else has fallen to the wayside. For the speaker, the hopelessness that comes as a result of the apocalypse is enough to make him question whether or not his existence is worth it.
Another of my favorite stories from the collection is “Perfect Pantry.” The strangeness of this story does not appear because of the world in which it takes place, but rather because of the psychological standpoint of the main character, Martha. In the midst of dealing with her divorce, Martha finds herself falling victim to what can best be described as a scam. While she is skimming the webpage of a famous chef, Martha learns about a site called “MerryPreppers,” which serves to assist people in preparing for the apocalypse. The website boasts:
[T]hat’s why we call ourselves ‘MerryPreppers,’—because the more you prepare, the less worried you’ll be when SHTF! As you work to make yourself more resilient, remember, be discreet. Those same friends and neighbors who ridicule you for preparing will be the first of the hungry mobs to storm your house, robbing you and your family of food and essentials, and possibly killing you, in a crisis.
From the reader’s perspective, the website is clearly using tactics to manipulate their anxiety-ridden audience. Of course, this works a little too well, and Martha falls victim to the scheme, even going so far as to euthanize her pet cat (but she keeps the dog because a dog will certainly taste better than a cat, if the need ever arises). Martha does not even question the ridiculousness of her actions, which makes it even more obvious that she is looking for a way to cope with her loneliness after her divorce. Because she does not know how to cope, she turns to the only thing that she feels she can control: preparation for the apocalypse.
Vanessa Blakeslee’s ability to create well-rounded characters is what draws me to her writing most. These are characters that are both pleasant and unpleasant simultaneously. For example, Martha’s behavior is questionable at best, and unethical at worst (i.e., euthanizing a cat that is not suffering), but because she is clearly grieving her lost marriage, the reader is able to sympathize. As a result, Blakeslee’s writing is akin to meeting new people—a bit strange, and certainly interesting.