Review: Because I Wanted to Write You a Pop Song by Kara Vernor

review by Cavin Bryce

Kara Vernor’s fiction has appeared in WigleafSmokelong QuarterlyGreen Mountains ReviewLos Angeles Review and elsewhere, and has been included in Wigleaf’s Top 50 Very Short Fictions, the Best Small Fictions finalists, and Outpost 19’s Golden State 2017 anthology. Her fiction chapbook, Because I Wanted to Write You a Pop Song, is available from Split Lip Press. You can find her on Twitter at @KaraVernor and online at www.karavernor.com.

 

As soon as I picked up Vernor’s slim, sixty-nine page book, Because I Wanted to Write You a Pop Song, I knew I was in for a quick ride. The brevity of this collection adds an incredible sense of urgency and pressure to the reader. Many of the pieces are one to three pages long, with “Crash”  being the shortest at just one paragraph of mangled violence. The collection starts with a story titled “Maybe She Could Lift a Car”,  and it is two pages of fiery ambition that sets the stage for the rest of the collection, introducing the very prominent theme of the female – male dichotomy. This story is fast paced, to the point, and acts as a wonderful ignition for the blaze that is the following twenty stories.

There are many tropes and themes in the romance genre that are explored often. This charted territory, the rows of tropes we’ve all grown accustomed to since Casa Blanca, does not represent in the obscure gritty reality that Vernor puts on display. There aren’t flowers and chocolates or long foot pop kisses. The relationships are often volatile, toxic, and beautiful in their depiction of a more accurate representation of the female perspective of romance. The women of the collection are often passive but energetic, youthful. The men are very “bro” in nature, characterized easily as wannabe musicians and self proclaimed pimps. There is even a character that refers to his girlfriend as “Uno [his] number one groupie”. Regarding the relationship between men and women as it is depicted in this collection; violent scenes lead to endings sometimes without any closure; child molesters live entire lives without repercussions, and criminals take advantage of seemingly kind people. This collection offers a glimpse at the seedy underbelly and unseen niches of modern romance, and the experiences women have with men on a day to day basis.

The entire collection does not focus entirely on the varying degrees of relationships  between men and women. Another theme explored throughout the collection is that of the corruption of innocence. In stories like “Bonus Round”  and “Don Johnson is Not Your Man”, the reader gets a glimpse into two stages of the character’s lives: childhood and post-childhood corruption. In “Bonus Round”, the reader is exposed to how a child is taken advantage of sexually by her neighbor and bears witness to the introspective process of closure that follows her seeing the same man, though much older, playing Wheel of Fortune on television. In “Don Johnson is Not Your Man”, the reader is introduced to an older brother and younger sister dynamic. A corrupt older brother acts as a Q&A platform for his sister who is curious about the adult themes of life, as we all are, while growing up. We also get a glimpse into the corruption of the brother, comparing his drunken slurs and attitude to his former self that enjoyed bringing sugary snacks home to his little sister. Anyone who has siblings, and those who don’t, can sympathize with this change of character. The seemingly inevitable corruption of innocence, the fleeting nature of youth, is a painful and sad thing to witness. Vernor showcases the vulnerability of the older brother perfectly.

Despite being so short, the majority of the stories in Because I Wanted to Write You a Pop Song  have interesting imagery. There is a repeated image of cliffs, tall and jagged and dangerous, throughout the collection. We get glimpses of rolling waves and bright moons, on top of some very dark imagery. One of my favorite scenes is abstract and rotten, truly beautiful, and reads: “If I were a peach, and I’m not saying that I am, I might like life after the fall, the ants crawling all over me, the sun baking my skin, my flesh cracking open, revealing the pit inside.” There’s also a grizzly scene describing the death of a woman who had a black widow living in her hair, an egg sack tucked behind her ear. It was a shocking image resting in between otherwise very forlorn and passive passages.

In Because I Wanted to Write You a Pop Song, Vernor opens a world filled with toxic vices, people, and situations. She reminds us that there is a cost for the luxuries we may experience, that nothing lasts forever, and that the California coast isn’t all roller blades and convertibles. Although it is a fast read it is not a light read, and will leave you pondering the various lives you witnessed through her words. Most of all, I appreciated the many faces that this collection shows the reader. Characters are often damaged, as all people are, but aren’t just that. These characters are complex. They are simultaneously smooth and jagged, and in that way, are incredibly realistic. I highly recommend this collection to readers interested in observing human relationships through a truthful, somewhat grungy lens.

Cavin Bryce is a twenty-one year old student of English attending the University of Central Florida. He spends his time off sitting on the back porch, sipping sweet tea and watching his hound dog dig holes across a dilapidated yard. His work has been published in HobartCHEAP POPOCCULUM, and elsewhere. He tweets at @cavinbryce.

Naturally, we had a few follow-up questions for Kara:

BRYCE: Beyond the romantic dynamic in “Because I Wanted to Write You A Pop Song”, there exists a fair amount of brothers and sisters in the collection. Do you have any siblings? How did having, or not having, siblings impact your process when writing pieces like, “Don Johnson Is Not Your Man” and “Werewolves”?

VERNOR: I have two brothers, one older and one younger, and especially as kids, we had a tight relationship. It was no big thing that my older brother threatened to beat up this guy in high school who lied about having sex with me, and in elementary school, I threatened to beat up some boy who was bullying my younger brother. We were a bit feral, but we were there for each other. Though I sometimes pull a fact or two from our real shared lives (one of my brothers did work at a cookie store in a mall as does the brother in “Don Johnson”), I mainly write about siblings because they are fundamental to how I conceive of the world. Not writing about them would be like writing setting without ever mentioning trees or roads.

BRYCE: In the collection’s title story, “Because I Wanted to Write You A Pop Song”, you write, “Then he farted in front of me for the first time, which was almost as good as I love you when you think about how it meant we were definitely a couple.” What are some other less-than-popular signifiers you’ve come across that indicate a relationship is definite, that are better than I love you?

VERNOR: I can’t claim these are better than I love you, but… flossing next to each other, peeing in front of each other, helping each other through norovirus. I’ve had the misfortune of being on both ends of that last one.

BRYCE: In the collection’s final story, “David Hasselhoff is From Baltimore”, there is a sense of closure despite the reality of California not living up to the main character’s expectations. Have you ever yearned for an experience that didn’t deliver? How did you make the best of it?

VERNOR: Sticking to the theme of travel, I flew to the UAE in 2013 to ride bikes through all of the emirates with about 125 women from about 25 different countries. It’s not like we were expecting Tour de France quality bikes to greet us, but what the local cycling federation whipped up were these super janky Walmart specials with fat, knobby tires and 2-3 working speeds, if you were lucky. They were closer to hardtail mountain bikes than road bikes, and were ridiculously heavy. Plus, the seats were not lady-parts-friendly, and you needed a regular wrench to adjust anything. They would have been fine for some purposes but not ours. We were in for slow, hot hours of riding through the desert and lots of pain. After our first real ride, we came back to the hotel, caked in dust and sweat, to find there was no water for showers. I went about trying to cope like I often do, by tracking down a beer, except we were in a dry emirate at the time. The neighboring American hotel was rumored to have beer, so in my nasty state, I went looking. Alas, I ended up going to bed (which was actually just a box spring with sheets) stinking and aching and beerless. It wasn’t all bad, though. The water eventually came back, and later in the week we were received in the palace of a real life sheika who gave each of us some chocolate and a pearl.

BRYCE: This collection is eerily real in the sense that you don’t dress anything up to make it prettier than it really is. People have flaws. Bad things happen. However, there is still a sense of dark comedy that makes everything a little better. Do you find yourself relying on comedy as a support system?

VERNOR: Yes, definitely, and even (thankfully) in the midst of this full-blown dystopia that is 2018.

BRYCE: The story titles in this collection are genius. How much time did you spend mulling them over? Do you have a process you go through when deciding on a title?

VERNOR: Thank you! I landed on each of them in different ways. Some came easy; some I had to dig for. As the collection came together, its title came to me before I had a story to go with it. I ended up writing that story because, I mean, you can’t have a title story with no story.

BRYCE: Do you have any future projects you’d like to discuss, any aspirations you’re reaching towards?

VERNOR: I’d really like to win the lottery. Every six months or so, I even buy a ticket, which may or may not be a metaphor for getting my novel published.

Copies of Because I Wanted to Write You a Pop Song can be purchased through Split Lip Press.