Bender, whose last book of stories (Refund, 2015, etc.) was a National Book Award finalist, generally uses world events as the background for fiction focused on domestic life, but these 11 stories make our current sociopolitical landscape the subject.
“Where To Hide in a Synagogue” sets the volume’s demoralized tone; while discussing with a friend how to protect their congregation from attack, a woman realizes their relationship won’t survive their disagreement over whom to trust or fear. Fear, along with anger and guilt, defines all the female, mostly Jewish characters here. Years after a woman is sexually assaulted in “The Elevator,” the trauma affects her behavior in another elevator. The protagonist’s financial panic underlies “Three Interviews” as she loses three job offers by inadvertently heightening the secret fears (maternal, romantic, medical) of her interviewers. Hidden hurts and fears push ultraconservative “Mrs. America” to campaign for the Senate whatever the moral and psychological cost. In “This Is Who You Are,” a teenager in 1974 struggles with both her Jewish identity and guilt over ostracizing a friend misused by a predatory teacher. The title story knots guilt and fear even more tightly as two contemporary middle-aged women admit the very different guilt each has carried since a deadly shooting at their 1970s middle school. While these stories explore relationships along with issues, “The Department of Happiness and Reimbursement” abandons domestic realism, imagining a near future in which all jobs are government controlled, walled compounds house the unemployed, and a “national game show” awards contestants abandoned mansions. Liberal condescension mars “On a Scale of One To Ten,” about nonobservant Jews who briefly consider enrolling their child in a Christian school before rejecting “Jesus’s desire to love us.” The closing story, “The Cell Phones,” about a Rosh Hashanah service interrupted by needy callers, offers a tiny sliver of optimism for those willing to listen to each other.
Riveting if polemical, and mostly bleak, depictions of America.