Publisher: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform (February 24, 2015)
Review by Robert Hambling Davis
I met Karen Stefano at the 2008 Squaw Valley Writers Workshop, where we were in the same critique group with nine other fiction writers. For her critique, Karen chose a story she calls “Undone” in her debut collection, The Secret Games of Words, which was published by 1 Glimpse Press in March 2015. “Undone” might have had another title when I first read it, but I remember being impressed with the format of the story, in which the attorney narrator, who works in the L.A. Public Defender’s Office, has to answer a personality inventory as part of her mental health evaluation, after a courtroom hearing which could result in her being committed to a California psychiatric hospital for a year. She must answer true or false to each of the nineteen questions on the inventory, which she does. She then justifies each answer for the reader, and these justifications are the meat of this tragicomedy about a woman who is coming undone in her love life and her professional life, and whose terminally ill father wants her to kill him.
The title story of The Secret Games of Words is written in the form of an email from the narrator, missusjack1, to her husband, JackLabRat, after he’s dumped her for his lab assistant. On a downward spiral, the narrator has been fired from her job as the mayor’s communications director, for making a typo in a press release, omitting the “f” in “Shifts,” so that the printed headline reads: “City Council Shits on Mayor’s New Policy.” She blames the typo on her stress over her dying father (a recurrent theme in Stefano’s stories), and as she drinks vodka to dull her pain, she entertains the following thought, which begins her “Period of Decline”:
“I realized then how consonants change lives. A shift turns to shit, friends turn to fiends, Native Americans with their proud heritage become naïve Americans, an epidemic. My mind flew in an endless loop, listing all the better mistakes I could have made.”
Later, when her husband comes home for the last time (he’s already shacking up with his assistant), the narrator tries to talk to him about the secret games of words, calling them “little pranksters wreaking havoc in our lives.” Then, attempting to make a joke over her misfortune, she tells him: “You got laid. I got laid off. One’s good, the other’s bad. Get it?” In the course of the story she loses her job, her husband, and her father, but the way Stefano has missusjack1 tell the story makes it comical, and this is a trait of most of the stories in this first yet accomplished collection: the main characters are haunted by bad luck, often forced into high-catastrophe-living mode, on the brink of madness, yet at the same time they have the ability to laugh at themselves. They don’t laugh at themselves, though. They’re in too much pain. Yet the way they tell their stories tells the reader that they are still able to see life as a comedy.
-Robert Hambling Davis is a fiction editor of The Fox Chase Review. He has been published in The Sun, Antietam Review, Memoir (and), Philadelphia Stories, Santa Monica Review, and elsewhere. He’s been nominated for two Pushcart Prizes, and received three Delaware Division of the Arts grants, two for fiction and one for creative nonfiction. He was a fiction semifinalist in the William Faulkner Creative Writing Contest in 2002 and 2012, and a creative nonfiction winner in 2013. Robert helps direct the Delaware Literary Connection, a nonprofit serving writers in Delaware and surrounding areas. He is a member of the Delaware Artist Roster, and has given writing workshops and readings in the Mid-Atlantic.