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Jac Jemc’s Short Story Collection, ‘False Bingo’ Is Strangely Happy And Happily Strange

New to San Diego, writer Jac Jemc’s latest book upturns everyday moments and challenges what makes a happy ending

Author Jac Jemc in an undated photo.

Credit: Jared Larson

Above: Author Jac Jemc in an undated photo.

There's a thread of obsession through Jac Jemc's stories. "False Bingo," is the latest collection from Jemc (pronounced "gems"), a new San Diego transplant who teaches creative writing at UC San Diego and is the author of four books. Her most recent novel, 2017's "The Grip of It" is one of my favorites, a swift, eerie and whip-smart story of a marriage and a haunted house, or maybe just a marriage. The characters Jemc crafts are terrifying in their normalcy and relatability, the way you feel so seen and suddenly like you wish you weren't being seen.

As I started reading "False Bingo," which is a finalist for the 2020 LAMBDA Literary Awards, I decided a few stories in that it was a perfect collection to dabble with. Cherry pick here and there, read a story a week, etc. The stories vary wildly in length, with mostly flash-length pieces peppered with a few anchoring longer stories. But the more I read, it seemed the less likely I was to set the book down.

Photo credit: FSG Originals

Jac Jemc's short story collection, "False Bingo" is pictured in this undated photograph.

And while the characters are all unique — different names, genders, situations, things they grieve, things they obsess over — there's a unifying glow that comes from the zoomed-out patterns of nagging, sometimes unexamined grief alongside stilted relationships, dysfunctional social interactions, mundane obsessions and sometimes sweetness and grace.

Jemc writes quiet characters doing quiet things in quiet stories. That's not to say they're lacking in plot or terror. She manages to propel a page-turner while dwelling in the interior of her characters, sometimes even in third person.

The collection is a journey, too. Jemc guides us through a vast swath of landscapes, from a swampy vacation house to a Mexican yoga retreat; from a failed artist's ceramics studio to court-mandated AA classes; from lonely bingo games to plastic surgery.

In "Don't Let's," a tale of abuse, escape, imagined hauntings and a somewhat futile attempt to relax, her language is vivid and evocative: "I woke gasping a deep drink of humidity like it was no air at all and looked around. The curtain hung to one side, light elbowing in."

And her ability to cut to the heart of the human condition leaves the intricacies of daily life and interactions laid bare. From "Maulawiyah," about a women's yoga retreat: "She smiled, pleasant and closemouthed, at herself in the mirror — mirror face was what Jacob called it, claiming it was the only time she formed that expression, tilting the corners of her mouth up, squinting her eyes just enough not to form wrinkles, inhaling slightly to narrow her nose …" Through the full collection, Jemc gives us many of these moments that feel like eavesdropping — things that aren't secrets, but not the flags we fly high.

What makes a happy story? That question is a subtle descant, unifying Jemc's work. In one of the shorter stories in the collection, "Gladness or Joy," the tension sometimes lies in waiting for the other shoe to drop as she guides us through an ensemble of seemingly happy character vignettes. It's dizzying and magic: "You hear your name shouted from across the street. The doorbell rings. The deadline passes. You taste the soup for the seasoning and somehow you got it right on the first try. 'Listen to this,' your friend says. You wait."

Her stories challenge the idea of what forms conflict and what forms a satisfying ending, or what constitutes satisfaction at all. And in that way, "False Bingo" is a collection that takes the kaleidoscopic concept of what human beings want and looks at it with total clarity.

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Julia Dixon Evans
Arts Calendar Editor and Producer

opening quote marksclosing quote marksI write the weekly KPBS Arts newsletter and edit and produce the KPBS Arts calendar. I am interested in getting San Diegans engaged with the diversity of art and culture made by the creative people who live here.

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