The Heart’s Home is a Trojan Horse: On Raphael Bob-Waksberg’s “Someone Who Will Love You in All Your Damaged Glory”
May 22 ● BY Ben McCormick
Hard is the day a friend is too excited about a TV show, and easy is the day that show turns out to be BoJack Horseman. Show creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg ignited a self-discovery in adult viewers: we still love cartoons. While BoJack is as tragic and thoughtful as any great drama, it’s also unapologetically full of talking animals and Saturday morning sight gags. Simmering under the pleasure of such self-discovery, though, is something unsettling about our initial hesitance: how could we have been so wrong about our tastes? Bob-Waksberg has turned to short fiction to examine that question. His terrific collection Someone Who Loves You in All Your Damaged Glory promises and delivers love stories but also subverts love and prose conventions in Bob-Waksberg’s budding style: an oil–and–vinegar emulsion of joyous, Barthelmean worldbuilding and emotionally stunted characters. Damaged Glory’s payoff is in its transitions—from focusing on the spectacle of a story’s structure or setting, to exploring how love is far less about discovery and far more about the flawed ways we understand ourselves. He holds the reader to a funhouse mirror—if you’ve ever let someone down gently with the line “it’s not you; it’s me,” Damaged Glory is here to say you were probably telling the truth.
The first story, “Salted Circus Cashews, Swear to God,” establishes Damaged Glory’s refusal to conform to love and prose conventions; its font opens over size twenty, then dwindles over its two pages to sub-ten. In thegiant font, it opens on a nameless cookie-cutter romance—the man invites the woman over, pours her a glass of wine—but then asks her to open a can of cashews she fears may be a joke, the kind that springs a toy snake. While reading its fine print, the can’s text shifts to second person and delves into the woman’s past: “Your heart is weathered and scarred, mishandled by many, eroded over time. You’re no dummy, and yet repeatedly, you stumble over the cracks of your cobblestone heart, you let your naked foolish hopes get the better of you.” What starts as romance unfurls into a haunting. That there is no such thing as a casual date may be Damaged Glory’s thesis—every time we entertain romance, we drag behind us a Santa sack full of history. In “The Serial Monogamist’s Guide to New York City Landmarks,” a character refuses a trip to her former home because of such history: “There are too many ghosts there.” Love can overwhelm this way, saturate us. Joy Division was right: love will tear us apart. Bob-Waksberg’s best characters remind us it’s already perforated our edges.
Damaged Glory’s stories upend social realism to the same end as BoJack’s animal-and-human-harmony: to create a playground to interrogate inner life without the aesthetic burdens of an Edward Hopper painting. Its arealism is seldom explained or explored, so it’s not subject to readers mapping histories, tendencies, and expectations onto it—which functions as ideal set lighting for characters with stunted self-awareness. Not only does collection-highlight “Up and Comers” feature friends turned into superheroes who must be stumble-drunk to use their powers, it also features the most BoJack (and most Bob-Waksbergian) type of primary character: one who’s so headstrong they open a story failing to recognize the strangeness of their own world, and by the end they recognize the strangeness in themselves. A lesser writer would allow a character an epiphany that broadens their perspective, but a master like Bob-Waksberg goes further. He forces characters into recognizing that the justifications they’ve created to nurture their old, narrow perspective are crutches they’ve leaned on for years. The stories that do this bear the sweetest narrative fruit: readers wonder at the world, then characters wonder at themselves.
Damaged Glory’s less successful pieces throw off that balance, foregrounding joyous worldbuilding and backgrounding character. This happens when the idea for a story muscles character into a box instead of shaping itself around character. “Short Stories” chronicles a failing relationship by alternating brief glimpses from the partners, and that brevity stifles character development. So, too, does “The Average of All Possible Things” constrain its POV character Lucinda, the passive average of all people. Bob-Waksberg’s commitment to the conceit renders the story timid until its final pages. By contrast, emotionally searing narrators, like the one in “You Want to Know What Plays Are Like?”, are all the fun of watching someone who doesn’t play baseball stride helmetless into the fast pitch batting cage. Bob-Waksberg allows that character to fill out the cage in surprising and affecting ways, not the other way around.
Bob-Waksberg’s joyous play often works best when fused with a character rather than externally drawing contrast. His unabashed love for word sounds has made its way to Damaged Glory, perhaps even more effectively than in Bojack Horseman. Princess Carolyn’s tongue twisters are rightfully jettisoned—far less effective on the page than auditorily—and Bob-Waksberg reinvigorates his surreal, comic use of repeating lengthy words using prose. In “A Blessed and Most Auspicious Occasion,” the narrator describes an unwelcome ritual at his stressful wedding: “He starts Weeping and Flailing and Shouting Lamentations. And then the guy next to him starts Weeping and Flailing and Shouting Lamentations. And before you know it all twelve of them are climbing over pews, their eye rolled back in their heads, Weeping and Flailing and Shouting Lamentations.” The humorous exhaustion of this commaless phrase reflects the narrator, reminiscent of George Saunders’s use of “Firpo” in “The End of FIRPO in the World.” “Firpo” sounds like the schoolyard insult it is, and “Weeping and Flailing and Shouting Lamentations” sounds as exhausting as it is. Both simultaneously bust a gut and convey an urgent need in their characters: respect in “FIRPO” and tranquility in “Most Auspicious.” Such bottle rockets of giggles and emotion burst all across this collection, perhaps nowhere more than “Rufus,” which is told from a dog’s perspective. The sticker price of the book is justified in the dog’s shame after hearing a sound it registers as “badog.” The frequency of these joys demonstrates a mastery of the prose form: Bob–Waksberg readers can relive these jokes with the twitch of an eye, while the same on Netflix requires clicking and waiting.
Someone Who Will Love You in All Your Damaged Glory is a triumphant fiction debut from a writer who has already mastered a different medium. A good writer drops readers miles from where they expected; great ones like Raphael Bob-Waksberg take readers just where they want to go, but when they arrive, the landscape doesn’t look how they remember. These are the thoughtful love stories you were promised, except they’re told across hand-drawn illustrations, party games, and blurbs from the author’s grandparents. Damaged Glory takes its subject seriously, but seldom itself. While literary fiction teems with irony and ironclad realism, the sincere weirdness of Bob-Waksberg invites us to reconsider love as lifelong surprise. It shows that some walls where we house our hearts aren’t walls at all. They’re doors.