Review: You Are Having a Good Time – Amie Barrodale

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You Are Having a Good Time – Amie Barrodale
Release Date: 05/07/2016
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Pages: pp 208 RRP: £11.99 (Paperback)

There’s something to be said about the impact that distorting familiar situations and concepts to create something new can have. Amie Barrodale’s You Are Having a Good Time takes this tool and uses it with surprising effectiveness to explore communication skills and our failure to improve them over time, especially through the medium of modern technology, even if it does reach some confusing conclusions.

The characters within each of the stories in this collection wear their flaws on their sleeves – they’re in bad (and at times abusive) relationships, they drink too much, or in the case of one particularly slimy therapist (in the story, ‘Frank Advice for Fat Women’), abuse their positions of power. Their efforts to reach beyond themselves are hampered by either their own faults, or by the limitations of the language they employ. For example, the story that opens the collection, ‘William Wei’ (for which Barrodale won The Paris Review‘s Plimpton Prize in 2012), focuses on William’s efforts to form a relationship with Koko, following a series of phone calls – drawn out of his usual routine, it’s the ‘bad trip’ the two characters take is what stays with him, rather than any honest effort to change as a person or to communicate with Koko. Elsewhere, characters are in strange quiet and subtle conflicts with each other, placed in odd situations, and acting on their own interests, regardless of the consequences. But it’s the moment they overextend their reach that they seemingly ensure chaos and their respective downfalls – be it seeking the help of an external support figure, retreating from a source of humiliation, or even just a meaningful effort to try to reach someone else.

The aforementioned focus on distorting the familiar, particularly through mediums such as text message or emails, can be seen in such memorable sequences as when one of her characters wakes to find that a text message she enthusiastically sent to her married lover, has been split up into several smaller text messages (due to his ancient mobile phone reducing the text to 144-character chunks) – and to which the only response she receives is a generic platitude. The problem is that this distortion is also reflected in Barrodale’s writing style. As her characters talk about seemingly irrelevant points in their lives, recalling events rather than describing them, the text can almost begin to feel like a VICE column (coincidentally, Barrodale is the fiction editor for VICE). If you’re not used to this particular style, it can potentially grate on you after a while. Another key point to consider is how Barrodale treats the women in her stories. Whilst she does acknowledge the intersection of power and gender (especially in ‘Frank Advice for Fat Women’), women are primarily left in subordinate positions in this collection. They are left to focus on what they have at present, rather than what they may want in the future, something I feel that may have been a missed opportunity for this collection.

You Are Having a Good Time can be a difficult work to summarise or outright recommend. At times, the stories can feel like they lack plots, and need to be mulled over after reading (usually not a bad thing) – the problem being that this can lead to feeling like there’s a series of inside jokes being referenced that you’re just not privy to. That said, Barrodale’s choice to focus on the seemingly mundane, to have conversations drift, is an interesting way of examining miscommunication, and one I didn’t expect to keep me thinking about the topic for so long after I finished the collection. If you’d like something to try to wrap your head around, perhaps you should give this a look.

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