In Wendy Brenner's home page, courtesy of the University of North Carolina at Wilmington's English department, she says her goal as a teacher is to lead students into battle with the inexpressible.' Brenner's new collection of stories, Phone Calls from the Dead, perfectly illustrates how she herself has won this battle by consistently using language to go beyond words. The stories in this book express the desperation of protagonists sometimes made mute by their inability to coherently communicate among themselves. By using seemingly inanimate and therefore voiceless 20th century technologies and animals as metaphors reflecting her characters' inadequacies, longings and failed aspirations, Brenner expresses for them what they cannot express. In this collection, both man and machine are miswired. The father in the title story addresses a conference of the Instrumental Transcommunication Network, relating how his dead son communicated with him through a tape recorder. In another story, a computerized switchboard at a hospital, through a programming error, places calls to those staffing the information desk as if to ask rhetorically by its silence, Is anyone out there listening? And in another, an air conditioning system falls apart section by section, thereby keeping a gorgeous repairman just outside the reach of a temporary worker whose life seems to be falling apart in a similar way. In each story, Brenner expertly interweaves the tragic with the comic. We laugh at these characters, distantly hearing within their voices the cadences of our own, but we flinch, too, because their familiarity sometimes brings us too close to the edge of recognition. We'd like to think we're not in the same boat or wired to the same network, perhaps but we know we are.
Acclaimed author Padgett Powell has called Brenner's work disturbed, taut, funny, and wise, and his assessment accurately describes what makes her writing just plain good. Not many can harness the disturbing with the funny, which partially explains why this winner of the Flannery O'Connor Award for her first collection of stories, Large Animals in Everyday Life, was named one of 25 fiction writers to watch by Writer's Digest. But the last word is that, like O'Connor, Brenner imbues her narratives with great meaning as she works to understand, as she puts it, the inexplicable, inevitable, intuitive, devastating, [and] holy. With each story, she figures it out.
Bonnie Arant Ertelt is a writer and editor living in Nashville.