Reviewed by Ashley Ehman
Within the pages of Antisocial Norms, Zeke Jarvis takes the reader on a journey through his unique and unexpected collection of short stories. While each story is made to stand alone, as a collective, the tales Jarvis spins work to create a juxtaposition between what Americans do out of politeness and what they do out of pettiness. Through his unorthodox subject matter and ability to craft interesting, engaging short stories, Antisocial Norms looks at how we as people deal with the uncomfortable truths that come with our own existence and morality.
There are a number of topics that can make even the most outgoing person timid and uncomfortable. Jarvis seeks to illuminate such topics, including public sex, death of a loved one, dating, and homelessness, through his compelling skill of word use and narrative development. The author seeks to expose the strange, unspoken rules that come with living in a society centered around insincere politeness. This idea can be seen as soon as the reader opens the book. In his first short story, “Losing Face”, Jarvis captures the familiar ideology shared among Americans that staring is rude. As the narrator in this story explains, “We had to decide if we should look at our phones, not really looking at what was on the phone but not looking at the guy and trying not to react” (Jarvis 11). The “guy” referenced in this line is an individual whose face keeps falling off. While Jarvis could have given the faceless character any sort of detrimental physical ailment that would cause people to stare, he opted to use wordplay to his advantage. His character was working on literally keeping his face, while those around him in the doctor’s office were “keeping face.” Keeping face is an unspoken rule in certain cultures that every individual deserves respect and dignity when you’re interacting with them. In the story, this translates to those in the doctor’s office ignoring the problem that the faceless man is experiencing. As the narrator says towards the end of the tale, “…just what were we all supposed to do? What would have been right or helpful?” (Jarvis 11). “Losing Face” speaks to the inability of people to sympathize with those around them. Instead of helping the man, the observers chose to ignore the problem and bask in the uncomfortable nature of the situation, only asking what they could have done better after the fact.
Another instance of forced politeness that Jarvis exposes is the American attitude towards homelessness. In his story titled, “Ronnie”, an alternate universe is constructed where each homeowner is assigned a Tent Person. As the title suggests, the Tent Person in this story goes by the name Ronnie. While we don’t actually live in a world where people are required to allow homeless people to live on their property, this short story does a fantastic job at elaborating the real-life American viewpoint on homelessness. The narrator explains, “How would I tell [my child] to respect our homeless just enough to be kind to them but not so much that they’ll let them inside, give them our food, let them root through our things?” (Jarvis 145). In our country, the general attitude toward homelessness is to ignore it. There’s a belief that the individuals did something during their lives to deserve their current situation. The narrator even pokes fun at the stereotype that all homeless people are unmedicated, crazy people. However, as the story ends, the narrator realizes that Ronnie was deserving of humanity as he explains, “I know what’s right…I could hear his sadness” (Jarvis 146). “Ronnie” worked to expose the general discomfort the United States has around vagabonds and homeless individuals.
The last story that caught my attention was “Letter of Rec.” Centered around the pleasantries of dating and breaking up, this story worked to expose how we have a tendency to tip-toe around hurting another person’s feelings in a romantic relationship. Upon separating, the characters in this setting are expected to leave reviews of their past romantic partners. This acts as a way to screen potential partners and see what it would be like to date them. The main character explains that past lovers “might privately lodge some complaints about each other, [but] they both understood how damaging a bad review would be for them” (Jarvis 128). As the narrator finally finishes his recommendation letter for his most recent ex-girlfriend, the reader can grasp the sentiment that, just like in this fictional setting, people are generally expected to speak well of their past partnerships and dismiss negative behaviors.
Antisocial Norms by Zeke Jarvis creates an interesting narrative in each short story that captures the reader’s attention from the very beginning. While some of the content matter is a bit taboo, this only helps the author becoming increasingly fascinating to his audience. With subjects like death, cheating, voyeurism, and more, Jarvis uses his unique ability as a writer to elaborate and illustrate how petty and insensitive Americans can be in uncomfortable situations. Through his collection of short stories, Zeke Jarvis does well to expose the reader to just enough discomfort to allow introspection in their own character and see how their behavior is guided by the invisible rules of American pleasantries. With his inventive plots, imaginative wordplay, and relatable themes, Antisocial Norms would be a great addition to anyone’s reading list.
Ashley Ehman works as a freelance graphic designer and copywriter, focusing on logos, social media content, and blog writing. When she isn’t busy with her freelance work, she also manages a professional animal care business and serves a multitude of clients in the Greater Madison area. In her free time, Ashley enjoys expanding her knowledge of the circus arts through hula hooping, lyra, fire play, and juggling, and playing with her hairless cat, Judge Nudie. Check out some of her latest projects @thedesigningavocado on Instagram or through http://www.AshleyEhman.com.