Pathetic by Shannon McLeod
Etching Press (University of Indianapolis), 2016
I have a few favorite Shannons. In college, a Shannon on my dorm floor, whom I affectionately called “Shane,” let me cry in her room a lot. She has a baby and a husband now, but I’d bet money she’d let me cry in her house if I asked. Another Shannon blurbed my book and told me she was a little in love with me. She’s queer and black and vibrantly advocates for those two parts of herself. I think I love her, too.
I’m going to go ahead and add Shannon McLeod to my list of favorite Shannons. Reading Pathetic, you can’t help but really, really like her. She’s gawky and accidentally, unknowingly charming, even though she seems able to articulate most everything else about herself. She is satisfyingly able to explain how and why she sees the world the way she does, like in the beginning of her essay, “goodbye yellow brick road”:
He is charismatic and pushy. I admire this because I am passive and insecure. I met Elton in the tenth grade at the afternoon arts center where I took classes to escape kids at my regular high school. When you get a chance to redefine yourself in adolescence, you take it. And Elton was the person after whom I decided I would model my new, confident self.
These essays won’t change your life, but Shannon is happy to let you try on her clothes for a little bit. She’ll even walk you around her life for a while. We get to peek through her eyelids and dig around her brain for self-worth and poise in a world with more people in it than she’d like. She takes dance lessons, goes to a new age workshop, hangs out with self-obsessed losers at bars and navigates through her adolescence and adulthood in a way that feels familiar and true. While her experiences aren’t wild or drug-fueled or life altering, the head on those tall shoulders can spew out sentences that left me giggling to myself, like these two: “I’m not complaining. I’m coming from a place of inclusive self-hate.”
The essays hold loosely together and each lands softly on the ledge of the next. It’s a well-written depiction of misadventures of a 20-something academic, in social settings big and small, mostly botched and sometimes swept away to Shannon’s delight, though almost never by her hand. She’s saved from an obnoxious friend by his own attention-deficit or maybe disinterest. She’s rescued from a pushy stranger by his curfew. All she wants, it seems, is to be at home with the TV turned up louder than her head, or maybe just louder than everyone else’s.
I’m incredibly inobservant and forget almost everything, so it’s refreshing to have Shannon looking around at the world for me. She’s perceptive. In a few of the micro pieces, she’s almost completely absent, acting only as watchful eyes, a cute god. Her final essay, “my hangover cure is your hangover,” is this way. Shannon’s presence comes and goes with the first sentence: “At the concert I felt out of place, so I stood at the periphery and watched the audience.” The micro-essay continues for a few hundred more words without her, but through her eyes, as she imagines the evening and next morning of a couple in front of her.
The book itself is a typical university pressing. My copy has off-center text on the binding. The pages are shiny, no doubt expensive, academic, but not my favorite. It’s a neatly sized book that is pocketable, a thing I’m definitely into, but altogether, I think Shannon’s work deserves better, more artful handling.
Shannon doesn’t come to big, giant conclusions with Pathetic, but she doesn’t need to, and honestly, probably doesn’t feel like it. Shannon steers you through her world between daydreams and you’ll go with her as she strings them together with insight and goofiness and a flicker of lip.
She says, “Two syllable names are made to be chanted,” and it’s true, goddamn it. Shan-non! Shan-non!
Gwen Werner is the founding editor of Moonsick Magazine and author of Kill Us On the Way Home, a book of short fiction, and I’m Ruining My Own Life, a book of short essays. She is a sorority dropout and cry-baby from Iowa.