Did you ever see the movie Margaret? A troubled production, it sort of came and went—despite good reviews—in 2011. Early in the film, a bus clobbers a female pedestrian, who then spends the next four minutes dying, slowly. It breaks the mundane atmosphere of a Manhattan intersection. People try to comfort her—one bystander, a young woman, in particular. For a while, the dying woman is confused and talkative, despite the fact her legs have been separated from her body. She cannot see, even though her eyes are open. “Can somebody call my daughter?” she asks through the gauze of blood in her mouth. “I don’t think I’m going to make it.”
A few years back, on a quiet afternoon in Tucson, I stumbled upon this scene while complacently exploring my newly installed cable. I’d heard of Margaret and was curious, being a fan of the director’s earlier work. Perhaps it was this sense of unexpectedness, but the death scene upset me—me, a usually unflappable movie-watcher who counts depressives like Michael Haneke among his favorite filmmakers—so much that I stopped the movie and turned off the TV. I don’t remember what I spent the rest of the day doing.
Recently, I revisited this scene through the work of Robert Lopez, a Brooklyn-based author and teacher whose latest short story collection has the evocatively ironic title Good People. In a brief story called “A Cloud That Looks Like Jesus,” his narrator frets about going outside into a poisonous city. As in many of Lopez’s stories, there’s no real plot here—just a narrator bringing his thoughts to boiling point. He recalls the scene from Margaret as evidence, and eventually concludes that he doesn’t have anything better to do most days than get run over.
“It’s a very unsettling scene!” Lopez tells me on the phone, seeming strangely pleased that I brought it up. “One of the most unsettling things I’ve ever seen.” Like me, he started the movie one day and didn’t finish it. But it lodged itself in his head. “I do feel that, in New York City apartments, there’s something poisonous about the living spaces. That was the genesis of the story….But I’d seen [Margaret] rather recently, and it found its way into the piece because it was about death and dying.”
Good People collects 20 stories about painful encounters, bad behavior, and neurotic self-absorption, with narrators who suffer and inflict that suffering on other people…though usually they inflict it primarily upon themselves. “They look inward more than outward,” Lopez tells me, “spiraling [through] strange logic. They grab hold of an idea, attack it, twist it around, get lost in the wormhole of their own minds. Even when they’re talking with somebody else, they’re trying to work something out with themselves….[They’re] almost wholly without empathy.”
As you’ve maybe guessed, this is a claustrophobic, difficult collection—probably not for everyone, though I loved it precisely because it seems so authentic about the ways in which smart human beings allow their damaged, troubled brains to run them around in circles. I confess that I am not impervious to this behavior (though I’ll deny it if you ever ask me in person), and rarely have I seen the curse of self-loathing, self-aware narcissism communicated so clearly in fiction.
But are these characters “bad” people? Lopez doesn’t see it that way: “I almost never, even in the most heinous cases of mass murderers, think in terms of good or bad.” He doesn’t even necessarily think of the book as being bleak, although he acknowledges that there’s a lot of despair. “Most of the stories make me laugh,” he says, and I agree, although the laughter is often the uncomfortable, cringing variety. “I remember hearing somewhere that the blues is actually a happy genre of music. The stories [in Good People] aren’t happy, but the characters are at least trying to find connection. They’re probably too damaged to find anything, though.”
When I tell him that I ultimately found the collection cathartic—maybe for the same reason we sink into sad music when sad—he knows what I mean. He doesn’t believe that art is therapy, necessarily, but he does believe that art has saved his life. “It seems dramatic,” he says, “but at times in my life, having a particular project to throw myself into has been a sort of saving grace, and a reason to get up in the morning.”
He does not, however, relate to his characters in many conventional ways; often—and he tells me as much, too—he seems more engaged with language than with people. “I hear so much about other writers missing characters,” he says, “as though they’re actual people, but I’ve never…” He takes a breath, pauses; he does this often during our conversation, trying to get the words right. “When I finish a [book],” he says at length, “I feel a palpable sense of emptiness, but I’ve never felt it to be related to the people inhabiting the book.
Absence is one of Lopez’s projects here—not only the absence of attachment, but also the absence of certain craft elements that one expects from short fiction. Oftentimes the narrators seem so locked inside their own minds that they scarcely acknowledge the world around them. “I’ve never been concerned with setting,” Lopez says. “Space is almost never important to me when it comes to the language I play around with.” Other conventional expectations are missing too. Some stories, lost in thought, have zero scenes; other stories lack plot entirely; one story, a Coover-esque sketch, even lacks characters, consisting only of the narrator explaining who and what he’s “cutting out,” until nothing is left. Instead of craft, Lopez relies of the obsessive voices of his narrators to carry the work. “I’m hoping the reader doesn’t even notice that a lot of those [conventional] elements are missing,” he says.
That said, these stories are not ponderous or self-important; they are, as Lopez acknowledged earlier, funny. They’re also improvisational. “I think of writing,” he says, “particularly when it comes to first person, as like an acting performance, where you improvise, try different things, assume roles that aren’t you. This is one of the great things about writing.” He tells me a story about Joyce, blind and old, dictating the text of what would become Finnegans Wake. At one point, there came a knock at the door. “Come in,” Joyce said, and the person taking dictation (Samuel Beckett, for you literary trivia nerds out there) wrote this into the text. Later, when Joyce discovered it, he was delighted and kept it in. This playfulness and sense of discovery informs Good People. “I never set out to try something particular when I write,” Lopez says. “I try to let it happen.”
Reading back through what I’ve written about this book, I’m not sure I’ve done a good job communicating what exactly it’s about. But what do you want to know about particular characters, the plots of particular stories? How can I summarize any of them? Abandon these notions at the gate of Good People; this book works musically, like a sustained note held by an orchestra—a note that only sounds richer and deeper the longer you listen to it. Yes, the book is sad, its characters amoral, its plots often abstract. But this is about tone, not about story.
Or think about that scene in Margaret, with the woman dying as one of the bystanders tries to comfort her. Did I mention before that this same bystander helped to cause the accident in the first place? If you understand this mix of guilt, callousness, and caring, you’ll understand Good People. You’ll also be alarmed to realize that some of Lopez’s characters might as well be you.
Benjamin Rybeck is the marketing director at Brazos Bookstore and the author of a novel, The Sadness, forthcoming from Unnamed Press in June 2016. His fiction and nonfiction also appears in Arts and Culture Texas, Electric Literature, Houston Chronicle, The Nervous Breakdown, Ninth Letter, The Rumpus, The Seattle Review, The Texas Observer, and elsewhere.