Review by Samantha Edmonds // November 15, 2018
Several weeks after finishing Vanessa Blakeslee’s Perfect Conditions (Curbside Splendor, 2018), I still feel these stories overflowing in my head, the way salt lingers on skin after an ocean swim. An apt comparison—of the ten stories in Blakeslee’s collection, six are water-based, set in coastal regions (particularly, but not exclusively, Latin American countries) and depicting ocean towns where people try living Jimmy-Buffett-style to surf their blues away. Do you think it’s always warm there and people are happier? Do you think the water washes away your troubles and you rise from the waves of your salty baptism into a new life?
If you do, you’d have that in common with many of Blakeslee’s characters. And like them, you’d be wrong.
This collection takes readers to paradise—perhaps in search of these so-called “perfect conditions”—and very quickly reveals the truth about perfection and paradise: People ruin everything for themselves everywhere. In the title story—which first appeared in Grist—Jack, living out his retirement in Costa Rica, is visited by his adult son Sebastian for the first time in several years, only to find this is not the son he remembers. In the horror-filled “Stand by to Disembark,” a young man on a sailing rig experiences claustrophobia and paranoia as he learns the captain has no plans to let him off. Two young surfers in “Splitting the Peak” fall in love on the beaches of Australia during a competition, only to be torn apart by reality when the trip ends. A forty-six-year-old gets testicular cancer in “Arthur and George: The Voyage Begins,” but is unable to go to the doctor until he finds health insurance for fear of getting a “pre-existing condition.” Paradise is not to be found in these places. But I promise, you still want to come along for the trip: Oscillating as it does between hilarity, heart-warmth, and terror—and sometimes all three at once—Blakeslee’s collection is not one to miss.
It’s not all beaches and ocean waves, either. Several stories cross genres, featuring aliens and doomsday preppers and post-apocalyptic police states where art is illegal and people don’t even own their own bodies. But “the invisible snap of magic” connecting all these stories, regardless of genre, are the people and relationships (162).
Perhaps the most important story in the collection to me is “Sustainable Practices.” Nina and Clint are on their honeymoon in Tahiti, chosen because Nina wants to visit the Tahitian aquifer portrayed on the label of her favorite bottled water. Upon arrival at the resort, Nina finds the island as idyllic as her dreams, but it’s not long before the people around her force her to reevaluate her understanding, such as when she snaps a picture after a bus ride of “her pedicure still intact from the wedding (#perfectpedi #honeymoon #daytrip #lovinglife)” and then notices “the long hard toenails in cracked, nameless plastic thongs” of the local woman next to her who makes this journey every day, and silently, ashamed, Nina “puts away her phone” (42). Nina discovers a more sinister truth than the “artesian aquifer” from the water bottle: a familiar story of economic disparity and capitalism and colonialization in these so-called “paradise places.” That it is told through the perspective of a #ArmchairActivist, who forgets the trouble immediately the moment she is on a plane ride home, would make it funny (and it is, actually) if it weren’t also so true. In a collection that uses these real places as settings for fictional stories, “Sustainable Practices” is a vital addition, one that manages to critique the very real, very damaging effect of the colonialization of these places in service of the white outsider even as the book tells stories about those very kinds of visitors.
And at its heart, this is a collection full of outsiders, characters that are both apart of and a part from their worlds, hoping desperately to find a place that feels like theirs. In “Jesus Surfs,” Eduardo refers to “a deep loneliness that had forever driven him to pick up and go,” then, upon arriving in each new place, finds himself asking, “Why come here at all? Was here actually better than anywhere else?” (37; 31). The narrator in “Clìnica Tikal,” a Guatemalan American from New York City visiting her “parents’ homeland,” feels a similar sense of outsider-dom, explaining that, “the way I walked, my salon-treated hair and nails, my Ralph Lauren jeans—it all told this world I was an outsider” despite that she was surrounded by family (122). These are characters that are “both inside the world and shut out of it” (33).
Perfect Conditions is, above all, about not belonging—not just in the place you’re in, but even and especially in your own skin. Many protagonists are preoccupied with getting older and worried about their aging bodies, whether that means a woman wondering what good her life is after a divorce (“Perfect Pantry”), the pain and nostalgia of meeting a school-days love as an adult (“Splitting the Peak”), or finding a mysterious lump on your body (“Arthur and George: The Voyage Begins”). For these characters, growing old came as a surprise—“This was how aging happened,” Jack thinks, “in little blips of decline, like a motor sputtering out” (99)—and they are unsure what to do with themselves and their lives now that it’s happened.
If Blakeslee offers an antidote to these fears of aging and not belonging, it is this: people. In the opener to the collection, a post-apocalyptic story called “Traps,” the narrator spends days listening to her doomsday uncle explaining that people are their biggest threat. But when the narrator’s sister arrives she tells a different story: she and the other homeless travelers “helped each other out: shared food, carried each other’s belongs when someone got too tired, built fires, sang songs… She couldn’t have made the journey alone” (8). This theme is repeated throughout the collection: People in isolation—sometimes literally, as with the characters in “Traps,” and sometimes metaphorically—constantly discover that what they really need to survive are other people.
Though it is only Martha in “Perfect Pantry” who asks directly, “Who am I, without this person?”, everyone in Perfect Conditions is searching for the answer (60). Sometimes that means going on a literal quest—“a real one,” as George calls it in “Arthur and George: The Voyage Begins”—and sometimes the journey is more spiritual, but either way, the characters always arrive at the same destination/realization: “Surviving for yourself—wasn’t that rather pointless?” (78).
Eclectic in genre but consistent in theme, these are stories out to prove that life is not at all where you make it, but with whom. Whether they’re post-apocalyptic or simply disillusioned, these stories—international, sinister, idyllic—are the perfect guide for How to Survive the Rest of Your Life when the world as you know it—literally and figuratively—comes to an end.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Samantha Edmonds’ fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in such journals as Day One, Black Warrior Review, Pleiades, Indiana Review, Monkeybicycle, and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. Her nonfiction has been published in Bustle, Elite Daily, Ravishly, and more. She currently lives in Knoxville, where she’s an MFA candidate at the University of Tennessee. Visit her online at www.samanthaedmonds.com