Jane McDermott’s Look Busy, the 2014 Michael Rubin Book Award winner, is a celebration of brevity, wit, depth, and nuance.
Composed of one hundred stories of precisely one hundred words each, the book defies definition. Within the first few pieces in the collection, we’re presented a meditation on the life of bees in a hive, an objective narrator’s view on the absurdity of relationships between coworkers, and a more personal narrator remembering her mother’s roommate at a convalescent home. There are clear themes of loss, friendship, motherhood, the drudgery and repetition of work, that tie the stories together, yet each piece stands on its own as an example of effective economic writing. This fluidity of genre, between flash fiction, to lyric poem, to linked stories, is part of the charm and mystery of what McDermott has created.
For me, what made Look Busy so pleasurable to read was its dark humor and the complexity of its brief tales. Story “Sixty-One” (the stories don’t have titles, instead they are numbered, which contributes to a feeling of a ascension towards a conclusive moment) concerns a mother complaining about how her children yell: “Stop mommy! No don’t do that! Owie, owie!” to try to dissuade the mother from washing their hair. It’s a funny moment because we want to believe the mother protesting to the neighbors that “Nothing untoward was going on”, and even posting a sign on the front door to that effect. Though clues in the story point to the narrator being truthful, the first person point-of-view McDermott has chosen for this story creates a dimension of unreliability. As a writer who has failed before in my attempts to write an unreliable narrator, McDermott’s success in breathing the confusion of truth into a tiny, 100-word, story is nothing short of miraculous.
However you approach this book: whether you read Look Busy all at once in mad rush (as I did), or read them in clusters over the course of a few days (as I did too), or really take your time, the book in one hand, a full glass of wine in the other, and read the stories slowly, one at a time, over and over, soaking in McDermott’s elegant, mature, prose (as I plan to do) - you can’t go wrong. The book is a gem, and best of all you’ll look busy while you read it.