In the wake of the 2016 election, calls to action became part and parcel of many American lives. Social media blew up with lists of congress members to call, lists of Trump’s lies to-date, lists of social justice organizations in need of donations; the women’s march mobilized millions of protesters; on the first waning crescent moon of Trump’s presidency, witches around the world dusted off their chalices and sabers to cast a mass hexing spell on the commander in chief. The cultural tenor was one of absurdity, urgency, and action. If that tenor has waned with the passing of months and the wearing-down of our collective wills, Janet Sarbanes is here to convince us to persist.
In her new story collection, “The Protester Has Been Released” (C&R Press, April) Sarbanes presents a timely meditation on the dangers of authority, the importance of community, and the wisdom of nature. “The Protester” is slim volume containing ten concise and expertly plotted stories, and one novella, but it travels through many landscapes, observing disparities and disasters unlikely to be featured in news headlines and presidential tweets. Gentrification and western entitlement, rampant carcinogens, and a crisis of consciousness in academia all perform their dysfunction in Sarbanes’ stories to ends both serene and droll. The effect is at once pleasantly unsettling and funny, making “The Protester” a must-read for radicals, conscientious objectors, and abstainers alike.
Sarbanes’ professional interest and expertise in narrative theory (a subject she specializes in at CalArts, where she teaches in the MFA writing program) is obvious in her collection–she deftly creates characters (some human, some animal) then applies external pressures and watches them cope. In “Coyoacan” and “Monument” readers inhabit what appears to be a not too distant future made apocalyptic by global warming; “Who Will Sit with Maman?” hinges on the socio economic disparity between inhabitants of the recently gentrified New City, and those left behind in a once verdant wasteland. In the collection’s title piece, “The Protester Has Been Released,” the push/pull between the individual and the collective, and the responsibility of the individual to the collective, is called into question as the Protester tests his power against a system dedicated to his passivity:
“His wife encourages him to follow his conscience, lending her troubled support, they’re just two little people, taking care of an even littler person. His friends voice their admiration, but he can tell they think it’s time to stop. ‘Leave it to the next generation,’ one of them says, slapping him on the back, ‘you’re a family man now.’”
It would be trite to write that the stories in “The Protester Has Been Released” situate salvation in community; after all, it is the Protester’s friends and family who urge him to stand down from the causes he marches against. But time and again in Sarbanes’ stories, strength comes from the humor, art, and action of united groups: The Arcosanti art collective, pitted against the capital M Museum; the residents of a Colorado town in which everyone has cancer, who turn the hospital into an art institute as they near the end; the tenants of a decrepit apartment complex who sit together, waiting for forcible eviction, “playing cards, joking and laughing–yes, why not laugh? The gendarmes are circling the building, but they haven’t taken it yet.”
Why not indeed? If laughter and solidarity are what’s needed to maintain morale, Janet Sarbanes provides her readers with both levity and support. The protester has been released, but after a good read, she must return to the picket lines, and to her fellow protesters. We all must.