While reading Rachel B. Glaser’s first collection of short fiction, I couldn’t help but be reminded of one of the more tired anti-MFA arguments. Critics of the degree often make accusations of homogeneity, of a groupthink-style of writing, and that only safe and just competent work comes out of Creative Writing programs. A graduate of UMass Amherst’s MFA, Glaser dismantles that spurious argument with Pee On Water; within this slim volume lies some of the most inventive and nettling fiction I’ve read in a long time. This is singular writing
The stories here are buzzy, neurotic, and self-aware. In “The Monkey Handler,” one of the most stellar pieces, a crew of astronauts and a primate stranded in space create a bizarre and touching microcosm of humanity, complete with sex and murder. Glaser’s worlds are a cluster of brand names, inchoate histories, and human waste.
The titular story is a terse tour through all of human history, though one not enamored with our achievements, but unflinching in its quotidian and sometimes scatological focus ("Flush toilets work with new sewage systems. Everyone begins to pee on water."). Glaser also displays a propensity for unrooted, wandering young characters that make gleeful and life-changing mistakes. The narrator of "Doodle Face" is a jaded and shallow kid flailing when life's responsibilities hit. He's not only a tragic son of a bitch, but he's so complete as a character you'll swear you went to high school with him.
However, when Glaser’s reach exceeds her grasp the stories, as in the isolated consumerist warning of “The Jon Lennin Experience”, can come off as aimless, and George Saunders-lite. I’ll also admit ignorance as to the point of “Iconographic Conventions of Pre- and Early Renaissance: Italian Representations of the Flagellations of Christ.” It certainly reads like it has something to say, but the layers are both abstruse and stubborn—for good or bad, the story simply doesn’t want to be parsed. Her successes far outnumber the softer stories here. I’m still amazed she made “McGrady’s Sweetheart” work—in a Vietnam War-like conflict, McGrady’s sweetheart is a gilled she-monster that eats raccoons and other woodland animals. “McGrady’s Sweetheart” serves as an example of one of Glaser’s strengths as a writer: taking well-worn concepts and reinvigorating them with fascinating twists. Throughout Pee On Water, Glaser puts most of the New Yorker’s 20 under 40 crew to shame with her work, fiction that is both bracing and fully aware of the limitless frailties of the human psyche.
Order Pee On Water here from Publishing Genius.