I have never had my palm read, though I am enchanted by palmistry, fates, and other mystical practices. As it goes, there are six major lines on a human palm upon which a fortune teller bases their predictions. Every individual may not present all six lines, and while the lines are individually important, they say as much in conversation as they do alone. A quick browse online reveals my palms lack several of the six key lines, though I won’t say which ones.
A drawing of a hand, palm facing out to the reader, fingers outstretched, features on the cover of Jessica Lee Richardson’s FC2 Ronald Sukenick Innovative Fiction Prize-winning debut, It Had Been Planned and There Were Guides. This hand—raised and open—serves both as a greeting and a warning for the stories this collection contains. The title and author’s name are carved in black ink onto the palm and wrist of the hand; this, too, bears a sense of duality, as it reminds us both of benign teenaged note-taking practices and the more morbid yet classic TV device of a moribund friend passing along a clandestine message, as from Charlie to Desmond in Lost or Dr Sanjay to Mulder and Scully in the new X-Files. Several of its six lines are missing too.
The title of the collection is echoed on the first page of the final story, “shush,” where it is meant as a calming agent to reassure the reader that riding downhill in a concrete boat is not a totally insane decision. The sentence, “It had been planned and there were guides,” also dictates the form of the book; the contents are divided into four sections: descent, impasse, ascent, and clearing. They are quite literal representations of the stories classed within this system.
descent is by far the most gut-wrenching section of the book, and while moments of beauty appear like gemstones in the rock face, Richardson doesn’t care what you think of stereotypes. Her cast of characters can be ‘gritty’, sometimes infuriatingly so, as in the opener “call me silk” and in “haut culture”, both of which I think detract more than they add to the collection as a whole. I would hesitate to suggest avoiding any stories altogether, but maybe don’t read those two first. My assessment of the descent isn’t all bad, just as my assessments of the rest of the collection are not all positive. The racially and socio-economically charged “check and chase” tells the story of the twins’ search for their beloved train set in a house that regularly eats their possessions.
impasse and ascent each contain half of a longer, more formally experimental and tonally playful set called “no, go.” This set is centered around a computer privacy software program called Nogo that operates through your email service provider to encourage cautious and constructive interaction but, as it turns out, creates far more chaos once installed than it is able to reign in. Unlike the harrowing descent, I found myself laughing out loud during “no, go” parts one and two—an unusual, unrestrained reaction to protagonist’s interactions with his ex-wife, his lawyer, and various hapless employees of Nogo. This middle section—a blockage and then a climb out of the darkness—is representative of both the contents of “no, go” and It Had Been Planned and There Were Guides as a collection.
Then there is the clearing, the fourth section and our final destination. The ten stories contained here mark a return to the traditional prose form; while certainly not all uplifting, they resonate differently than descent in mood and subject. If the first section was political, this final one is magical. A grandmother speaks to a family of spiders in “not the problem,” forming a kinship with them that she is unable to achieve with her own granddaughter in her final days. Crabapples and approvals dominate the mind space of an associate at Berryman Consultants in “two angels.” Several birds and an extinct monkey are resurrected in “the best deal.” This section is charming, considerably lighter than the descent—despite tackling death, heartsickness, and monsters.
Now, after we’ve descended fully into the pit, flopped along for a bit on our bellies, and been pulled out arm over arm by a kind stranger, I am going to suggest something daring. After having gushed over the merit and clarity of the section titled clearing, I’ll say I’d like to cut it out of the book altogether. Then, I would turn my scissors to the descent and create a new space for us to walk around in the clearing before the ground opens up beneath us and we fall into the pit. This is a controversial move I approach with more than a little of my own skepticism, as I would hesitate, again, to advocate for changing a book’s form. But it is something we can all practice at home—and it is a practice which would allow us to avoid ripping out stories from the descent with our teeth as we go.
My approach to reading short story collections tends to be similar to my approach to listening to music: I want the whole album, I want it start to finish, and I want it to mean something. I want it to add up to something more than its parts. Without a doubt, It Had Been Planned and There Were Guides achieves this on all levels. But I will be perfectly honest: I think if I had been tackling the collection as a fresh reader and not also as a reviewer, I would have stopped after “call me silk,” and that would have been a shame. So here is where you, as readers, have a choice to reorder the tracks, to pick out favorites like “not the problem,” “the best deal,” and “check and chase” and reread these often, to make the collection your own. Sometimes, this is what a book demands of its reader; sometimes, that is what it allows.