I don’t know if I can tell you exactly how Rebecca Schiff works the magic in her recent short-story collection The Bed Moved, but if I had to try, I would give an answer pleasing to your high-school English teacher: by using the active voice. Her narration style is minimal and excised, all the extraneous words taken out and then a few more, all the subjects simply doing the verbs. She uses this style to great effect in the title story: “The bed moved. Movers moved it. Movers asked what my dad did, why he wasn’t moving the bed.” She truncates explanation. A less self-assured writer would use many more words. Though she eschews the arc of plot seen in so much fiction about relationships, her narration pulsates with fundamental questions that stay unstated: Why do we keep hurting ourselves? How do we move on?
Schiff’s answers to these weighty questions, much like a few of her stories, begin with a joke. But her levity conceals the emotional punch she can pack. Rebecca tells a story, called “Third Person,” about Rebecca, the other woman. Rebecca is perpetually the woman with whom boyfriends choose to cheat. But eventually, the implications of listening to Rebecca tell a story about Rebecca are revealed: “Rebecca wanted to tell them not to worry, she forgot all the sex she had as soon as she had it, she didn’t really have it when she had it, and she hadn’t for a long time.” The distance we feel from Schiff, because she’s presented as a fictional character, seems to mirror the distance she feels from her sexual partners and from herself. Though sexuality is a constant focus—the stories tend to take one or a few thwarted relationships as their starting point—the death of a parent snakes through the collection. Many characters have lost a parent to cancer, something that Schiff experienced in her early adulthood. Loss structures the ways they connect to each other and their attitudes towards sex. They know what it’s like to lose something irreplaceable, to attempt to fill an unfillable hole with emotional and physical intimacy.
The centerpiece of the collection is story called “Another Cake,” about a young woman’s trip home from college to sit shiva after her father’s death. The story is filled with the black humor characteristic of the collection. The narrator comments on the fact that her relationship to her mother has changed, and now they must act as equals, though she would prefer a more parental hand. “Husband’s dead? Meet your new husband. Standing tall at five foot two, your new husband is majoring in cultural studies and has recently become sexually active,” Schiff writes. She depicts grief without melodrama, and her attention to telling details—the rabbi’s “thick lips and tie the color of lox,” or “the casserole sliding around in the backseat”—makes it clear that her senses are heightened, but she is in a daze. The death of a loved one is like taking temporary residence in the desert of the real, where your understanding of how the world works and your current reality refuse to cohere. Her ability to make sense of it all is gone, but the details are there; what’s surreal to her becomes visceral to the reader. The narrator’s erstwhile boyfriend shows up to the funeral, and the connection between sex and death is made more explicit: Once you’ve experienced each, you can’t go back to the way you were before, regardless of how nostalgic you feel.