by Jerome Spencer
“I stood there a long time and Saul stood next to me. I kept waiting for the beauty. It felt like I was always waiting.”
I suppose if I had to explain what Saul Stories is “about”, I’d tell you something pertaining to a 40 year-old woman who hangs out with her teenage daughter, parties with her teenage friends and has a non-sexual (?) obsession with an underage boy. What Saul Stories is actually about, though, is moral ambiguity, societal expectations/standards and that hazy fog where art and life collide and the rules become unclear.
An imposing collection of short stories linked by the characters, Elizabeth Ellen crafts a relentless narrative that twists and plummets, conflating empathy with enabling and specifically challenging preconceived notions about the unspoken rules that dictate us. In particular, the accepted ideas about friendship, trust, and who can associate with whom. The main character of Saul Stories, an unnamed narrator, is so unlikable – an emotionally stunted “artist” living of a trust fund with no direction while financing a posse of delinquent eighth graders – that distrust for her intentions is imminent and fierce. The stories, however, are told with such brutal honesty and emotional uncertainty that her humanity takes on its own form and that form becomes the most relatable character in the book. It’s so easy to find oneself rooting for the narrator to win although it’s never clear what the stakes actually are or what any character in Saul Stories stands to win.
Ellen never hits the reader in the face with any of this, though. The stories pummel through time, leaving the inevitable conflict and ugly parts implied like whispers in the community; like dirty looks from illustrious older white men who’ve invested a lot of money in something you obviously are supposed to be grateful for. It’s there. You feel it and everyone else does, too, yet no one ever talks about it. Ellen’s writing is masterful as Saul Stories reads like a candid conversation with an affable acquaintance that just shares too much and doesn’t give a fuck what you think. She never tries to sway the reader’s opinion or stance, merely gives an accurate review of the situation from one side of the story.
Smart without pretense, discontented without angst, uncomfortably funny and painstakingly direct, it’s almost cliché to laud Saul Stories as Lolita for the internet age, but it’s also hard to miss that assessment.