In the aptly named short story collection Imagine Your Life Like This, Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis professor Sarah Layden introduces readers to an assemblage of vividly drawn characters, all striving to pin down who they are or might be. The titular story establishes the collection’s preoccupation with the tools we use to define identity. In this opening story, an enigmatic anthropology professor named Lucinda assigns Annie, a restaurant hostess who is resuming her college education, the task of writing an autoethnography. Autoethnography involves mapping one’s self in relation to a surrounding culture, and, in simplest terms, this is what most of the stories in the collection represent. Characters grapple with foster care, reproductive trauma, domestic violence, suicidal thoughts, marital malaise, and loneliness. They work in words, pictures, journeys, and ideas. Story titles point to questions of identity—“I’m Not Who You Think I Am,” “Nothing and Nobody,” and “Paternity Test”—and searching—“Locations without Maps” and “In Search Of.”
The collection rings most true in the moments where it emphasizes failed efforts to create a story of self. In “Where the Light Can’t Reach,” a woman contends with her fears while her husband is away caring for his ailing father. Cloistered at home over the holidays with two young sons, she ventures to a park for fresh air and brings along a vintage camera. The camera, with its limited exposures and delayed film development, is placed in comparison to the apparent immediacy and candor of social media, as the woman contemplates Facebook messages her husband has exchanged with a high school flame. The story heralds the risks of storytelling—of media that mimics and constructs our lives through partial representations. It performs another character’s lament that, “people make things up to understand whatever it is they don’t understand” (35).
Reading these stories is a deeply participatory experience. Layden’s storytelling invites us to be witnesses rather than mere observers. Indeed, it’s easy to forget that we are reading and find ourselves living with the characters. Moreover, Layden’s narratives suggest the importance of hearers and see-ers to the formation of self. In the first story, Annie’s willingness to put her unwieldy pain into words comes from having someone to bear witness to it. Similarly, the main character of “Resuscitation,” Betsy, understands her loneliness in a new way when she realizes that one person saw her in the wedding dress that she made but never wore for a wedding. The dress is a receptacle not of matrimonial dreams but of her creativity and artistry, a fact which we understand when Betsy learns that she has been truly seen.
Whether they ultimately find a piece of themselves or realize they need to let go of an idea of self that no longer applies, Layden’s characters take us along on their journeys. They become people we once knew who help us construct our own selves by highlighting the beauty and treachery of the endeavor.
Dr. Kathryn Ludwig is Assistant Teaching Professor of English and Associate Director of the Writing Program at Ball State University. She earned her PhD from Purdue University, where she studied contemporary American literature with a secondary concentration in Jewish philosophy. Her scholarship deals contemporary American literature and postsecular theory, in particular. Her current research considers how contemporary American literature by women uses space to reconfigure religious possibility. She teaches courses in literature, writing, and cultural studies, including an Indiana Humanities-supported course in 2021, entitled “Midwestern Stories.” She is winner of Ball State University’s 2023 Lawhead Award in General Education and 2021-2023 Ball Brothers Honors College Faculty Fellowship.
Sarah Layden is the author of Imagine Your Life Like This (University of Wisconsin Press, 2023), The Story I Tell Myself About Myself, winner of the 2017 Sonder Press Chapbook Competition, and Trip Through Your Wires (Engine Books, 2015), a novel. She is co-author with Bryan Furuness of The Invisible Art of Literary Editing (Bloomsbury Academic, 2023.) Her short fiction can be found in Boston Review, Stone Canoe, Blackbird, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, the anthologies Best Microfiction 2020, Welcome to the Neighborhood, and Sudden Flash Youth, and elsewhere. Her recent nonfiction work has appeared in The Washington Post, Newsweek, Poets & Writers, Salon, River Teeth, The Millions, The Humanist, and Indianapolis Monthly. She earned a B.S. in journalism from Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, and an MFA in fiction writing from Purdue University. She is an Assistant Professor of English at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.
Monthly reviews of books written by Indiana authors are made possible by the Eugene and Marilyn Glick Indiana Authors Awards and Indiana Humanities. Opinions expressed in this review are solely those of the reviewer, not any affiliated entity.