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  • Writer's pictureNaya Clark

Erin McGraw's 'Joy' Helps Us Understand Strangers

written in March 2019

Erin McGraw’s latest collection, Joy, is a mosaic of 52 short stories that seamlessly and humorously capture the multifaceted bits of everyday life. McGraw’s slice-of-life drop-ins of Americans living within their own bubbles distill the essence of people that are, internally to them, completely logical, yet borderline absurd to those around them.

Among many compilations of suburban everyday life, McGraw’s Joy can be likened to a more literary form of the Netflix series Easy. Like Easy, Joy is an anthology of stories of the emotional, cognitive, and the binding and unraveling of interpersonal relationships, love, and life.

If one were to be in public–Say at a park, a mall, or a supermarket, the characters within Joy are who one may not think twice about. Alternatively, sometimes the stories are exactly what one may assume of passersby, but reveal complex narratives as to why they are the way they are. The magical element McGraw accomplishes, is showing the candid, everyday underbellies of their personalities, experiences, and discussions.

The stories in Joy are sometimes, simply put, hilarious. McGraw writes wittily about the odd bits of “people who have no earthly reason to be as happy as they are.” Sometimes those people annoy, offend, or humor others around them. What makes Joy impactful is that each unique story feels like being a fly on the wall of intimate facets of people’s lives.

The social nuance that takes place in McGraw’s Joy circumnavigates the moments that at face value pass as asinine out-to-lunch conversations. Take, for instance, “Friendship,” a back-and-forth dialogue between two friends who discuss being married and unmarried and the men they used to date, from cokeheads with bad breath to husbands that dream about other women. McGraw writes in a way that doesn’t make this conversation simple girl talk, but touches on the dynamics of friendship, marriage, and relationships that didn’t work out.

McGraw’s flash fiction, particularly in stories like “Soup (1),” “Soup (2),” and “Soup (3)”—three connected short stories, each from the perspective of one of three main characters—carries a heaviness that is so consuming it’s difficult to believe a few pages can create such a visceral impact. Consecutively these stories cover topics of cancer, death, and how it connects people around a dying person’s life. Despite the brevity of these stories, McGraw is able to create a visceral experience for her readers. For instance, in “Edits” an unnamed disabled character lives an adult life, following her lovable childhood character, as documented in her mother’s books. Her present, solemn narration switches between her experience, and how her mother would document her. In addition to her unnamed disabilities, she struggles with disappointed fans not seeing the same little girl written about in her mother’s stories. “Every moment of the day was devoted to the life I would have...and my mother isn’t here to make it sparkle. Even more painfully, “Without warning, her hip pinged and her legs give way and she’s on the floor. Now she’s face down on the linoleum, the breath banged right out of her.”

Another strength of McGraw’s is trusting her readers. Sometimes her characters are nameless, the exact pangs of their lives can be assumed by their dialogue, and the guiding narrations sometimes their own, sometimes as onlookers.

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