Pee on Water
By Rachel B. Glaser
Reviewed by Mike Meginnis
"Hippopotamuses are full of surprises."
This is one of my favorite sentences, first heard while channel flipping. It was the beginning of a nature documentary. Footage of a herd of hippopotamuses running over grasslands. The narrator explained that they could run up to thirty miles an hour. They also hold funerals. I never found out about the other surprises. Instead I changed the channel. The other surprises couldn't possibly live up to what I was thinking. Whenever I remember this sentence, which is often, I imagine what other surprises might be hidden in a hippo. Candy, for instance, or a rub-on tattoo.
Pee on Water is full of surprises. They're the sort that we read for. Sentences, images, ideas, snatches of thought that wake us up, remind us that we're alive, and remind us to pay attention. Reading Rachel B. Glaser's prose is like flipping through the channels and finding a great show on each one. It's like hearing that hippopotamuses are full of surprises, and then the surprises actually being as good as what you imagined. And better. And better still.
Glaser's defining quality as a writer is a fearless pursuit of the many pleasures writing offers. Her stories transform and redefine themselves frequently without ever becoming a mess or a lark. They retain structures even as they mutate those structures. They puncture themselves and then joyfully inhabit their new, deflated shapes.
In the collection's first story, "The Magic Umbrella," we begin with what seems to be a writing exercise by a girl named Jen. "One day there was a girl whose name was Jen. She was a secondgrader. Jen was running to catch the bus when she saw that it was raining." We accept this, perhaps imagine certain rules, a certain structure. "On the way she saw an umbrella walking towards her and it had a face!" We understand that we are reading a semi-autobiographical fantasy story written by a fictional little girl. And this makes sense–the title is, after all, "The Magic Umbrella."
One paragraph later, that story seems to have ended. Glaser writes, "About the author. Agnes wrote this when she was seven." And so on. Now the story is about Agnes and also written, apparently, by Agnes–not, as we may have suspected, Jen. A couple pages later we learn that this was all in fact written by Jo. And so on. The story's procession of narrators does not confuse or muddle. Each new writer/narrator has her own voice and her own style of writing, including a lengthy biographical note on a children's author and a final twist I'd hate to spoil. One of the pleasures of Pee on Water is coming to learn how quickly you can follow a story, how many shifts in tone and style and voice you can accommodate, given the guidance of a skilled writer.
The next story is science fiction. We might apologize for this or try to disguise it in some way if we were ashamed, but there is no call for shame, and "The Jon Lennin Xperience" is definitely SF. It's about a young man playing a futuristic video game wherein you get to be John Lennon. It is beautiful, tragic, and heartbreaking. It is so wonderfully itself. There is a story about young romance and crime. There is a story in the form of a kind of essay: "Iconographic Conventions of Pre- and Early Renaissance." It isn't boring or smug or masturbatory like so many stories disguised as essays. There is a story about teenagers fooling around. There is a story about astronauts. You don't know the story is a tragedy until it's nearly over. This is common in Glaser's work. There's a story about a medical student who writes a paper called "The Illness as an Interesting Life Experience," wherein he argues that, "in addition to sympathizing with the patient, the doctor can also treat the illness as an experience, as a creative capability of the body."
Some of the stories feature computers and the Internet in a prominent way, and Glaser makes these technologies both interesting and emotionally resonant, as when the protagonist in "The Sad Girlfriend" thinks that if she "lets her eyes linger too long on any one man, the man might later log on to Craigslist and post a missed connections entry."
Each story is threaded with a series of small, lovely shocks. Sometimes they are dirty. Sometimes they are sweet. Often they are sweet and dirty. Often they are other things. "Our favorite way was to have sex." "Brad Pitt is slowly falling out of love and into love. Matter into energy, energy into light." "She puts honey and crocodile dung in her vagina to block out sperm." "When she met him he had a moustache, then he had a beard, now he had nothing." "Sometimes landing a boyfriend feels like being drafted in the NBA." "The view scrolled to Yoko's vagina." "Readers, I am that book." "Every famous person born finds the time to die."
These stories have all been published, possibly in places you read. I had read and loved several before. The collection brings into relief how large and beautiful and ambitious these stories really are. Glaser has written a 9/11 story, "My Boyfriend, but Tragic," and it's genuinely great, precisely because of her idiosyncrasies as a writer, which are therefore revealed as not only idiosyncrasies but also the right decisions. In the titular story, Glaser charts the entire history of Earth and the human race from the beginning to the future, all without sacrificing her voice:
At the World's Fair, someone rolls a waffle and scoops ice cream in it. Plastic is invented. Neon lights. 127 kisses in a single movie. Women use Lysol disinfectant in their vaginas to prevent pregnancy. Crowds of bodies are buried in the ground. Bombs are made with chemicals about to freak out. The seventeen-year-old girl looks into the toilet at the shape of the shit that sits there, complete as one thing, a size similar to her boyfriend's penis.
The fearlessness that allows Glaser the scope of the story is the fearlessness that allows her the shit the size of a boyfriend's penis, is the fearlessness that makes her stories grand, is the fearlessness that will inspire other writers, is the fearlessness that lets her play so fast and loose with genre, is the fearlessness that lets her use the exclamation point so often, is the fearlessness that will make you buy this book, is the fearlessness that will make you love this book.