Throughout her collection of short stories, The Protester Has Been Released, Janet Sarbanes employs a number of devices and motifs that all serve a central purpose: exposing the Emperor’s naked ass. She satirically explores power imbalances by flipping perspectives. Sometimes that’s through telling stories from the point of view of animals. Sometimes it’s through flipping back and forth between first-person accounts from different characters. She often uses science-fiction elements to set up a central metaphor to make a similar kind of point. Throughout it all, her total commitment to each premise, her sharp wit and her ear for dialogue make each new world she unveils easy to find oneself immersed in. Along the way, she exhibits a sophisticated satirical acuity mediated by a deeply felt sense of humanism that reminds me a lot of Kurt Vonnegut’s work, especially when one also considers the fantastical elements in her stories.
Sarbanes’ animal stories were my favorites, because she based each story on an actual famous animal as she tells their story from their perspective. “Laika Hears The Music Of The Spheres” is about the famous Russian dog who died orbiting the earth, testing an early spacecraft. This heart-rending story is about the very end of her mission, when she slowly starts to comprehend what’s going to happen to her but doesn’t love her master any less: “I have no regrets. I loved well. I was a good dog”. “Meet Koko” is told from the perspective of the gorilla who’s learned a number of signs from American Sign Language. The story suggests that Koko knows a lot more than she’s let on, with trenchant12 observations about the relationship between her leader researcher Penny and her partner Ron, understanding that Penny’s obsession with Koko having a baby is directly related to her own personal obsession. Koko is bitchy and bored, but what she really wants to do is direct. “Rosie Ruminates” is told from the perspective of the sheep that Dolly was cloned from, and boy does Rosie have a lot of opinions about everything. She’s a philosopher who dreams about liberation and loves poetry, and when she’s cloned, she hopes Dolly shares the same interests. When she doesn’t, she comes to understand how she’s underestimated the importance of concerns that ordinary sheep have in a smart bit of commentary on class.
A bunch of Sarbanes’ stories are told from multiple points of view. “Coyoacan” is perhaps too on the nose in the way it switches from the point of view of an American family living in a Mexican villa for the husband’s job and the maid & chauffeur who live there. The crass boorishness of the Americans (money-obsessed husband, Frida Kahlo-obsessed wife) is familiar, but I thought the Mexican characters were nuanced in their desperation to not anger their boss while trying to figure a way out of their town beset by floods. “Sunshine Collective” and its art museum send-up at times feels a little like shooting fish in a barrel, but Sarbanes’ absolute commitment to the gag of an avant-garde are collective being asked to “activate a space” in a museum that turned out to be a bathroom by way of a running correspondence lends the story its comedic power. “Ars Longa” imagines a world where cancer has spread like a virus and shuffles its narrative perspective between a man, his daughter and his two sons. It’s a beautiful reflection on the importance of art where all other meaning in the world has faded, as well as the importance of connection in a world that encourages isolation and alienation. A story for our times.
The other short stories focus on post-apocalyptic scenarios of one kind or another. “Who Will Sit With Maman?” is another poignant but pointed takedown of capitalism and gentrification told through the eyes of an apartment manager out in the desert who’s taking care of his dying mother, who prefers her richer but negligent son to him. “Monument” and “The Tragedy of Ayapaneco” are the stories closest to Vonnegut in tone. The former is about a couple desperately looking for scraps of technology for their bunker, with the male character desperately trying to get the female character to cling to the idea of rescue from their own post-apocalyptic hell. That mix of the deeply humane and the slightly absurd reflect how much Sarbanes feels for her characters as imperfect human beings. The latter story is farce, told in third person in such a way that the names of the characters emerge again and again as the linguistics department of a university is being dismantled. Instead of a continuous narrative, the story is told in short vignettes as the indignities heaped upon a professor and her top student are a result of forces far beyond their control: the gears of capitalism infecting higher education. The titular story is told at a distance through a series of paragraph prompts that almost act like a silent movie’s narrative caption: “He chooses to join”, “The Protester has assaulted an officer”, etc. The story has that same kind of wacky quality of ever-elevating absurdism tied to the whims of a police state.
The novella and centerpiece of his collection, “The First Daughter Finds Her Way” is a critique of the Dubya Bush administration told mostly through the eyes of the president’s teenage daughter and the First Lady. Given the daily absurdities issuing forth from the current White House on a day-to-day basis, the novella can feel a bit quaint – bring back those bad old days. There are plenty of funny moments (the President’s idea of the U.S. literally invading every other country in the world in reverse alphabetical order was hilarious), but the reality of the farce that we must live with every day now muted much of its satirical bite. That’s through no fault of Sarbanes of course. But unlike in her other pieces, the characters here feel more like caricatures rather than real human beings (or even sensitive animals!) enduring indignities, oppression and suffering. That said, the breeziness of her style still made the story a pleasant read. Indeed, Sarbanes’ prose is simple and concentrates on basic details regarding her characters and their environments. Rather than cloak her stories in unnecessary layers of verbosity, she instead lets the humanity of her characters shine through her clever dialogue, her sharp comedic sensibilities and an unadorned delivery of both.
Days of regime call for books that will interpret our maladies. Janet Sarbanes’ The Protester Has Been Released is just such a collection. Don’t miss it.
Anna March is the founder and publisher of Roar. She writes regularly for Salon. Her novel and essay collection are forthcoming. You can learn more about her at annamarch.com or follow her on twitter @annamarch.