Chapter 16
A Community of Tennessee Writers, Readers & Passersby

This Cult of Niceness

Lorraine López sends up the foibles of arts faculty in Postcards from the Gerund State

For the faculty of fictional Birnbrau College, a small conservative women’s college in northeast Georgia, the academic life brings with it a host of upended expectations, small (and large) indignities, and enough absurd catch-22s to make Joseph Heller apply for personal leave. Lorraine M. López’s collection of linked short stories, Postcards from the Gerund State, mines those ironies to comedic, insightful effect.

Postcards’ stories focus on a small group of women faculty members at Birnbrau, all of them non-tenured, who struggle to maintain an uncertain grasp on their apparently Sisyphean careers, their creative endeavors, and the precarious dynamics of their personal lives.

Fiction writer Lucinda shuffles sudden responsibilities as a new grandmother with her professional ambitions. Plein air painter Jane is pulled in numerous conflicting directions by her personal life, all of which threaten to lead her away from decades of careful discipline toward her work. Poetry professor Devorah is dogged by the demands of caring for her hilarious, troublemaking mother. Textile artist (and chronic over-sharer) Hailey stumbles over her own questionable but endearing decision-making skills. Faced with a personal crisis, pointillist painter Kerry navigates the many lies that she’s told everyone (including herself) over the years, in order to keep deep truths at bay.

Postcards culminates in its title story, a novella that finds this core group of five women housed together in an insular artists’ retreat in rural Wyoming. There they attempt to produce work without the everyday distractions of their lives, only to encounter profound distraction in another resident, Leah. Like them, Leah is also a new faculty hire, but her persistent solipsism and thoughtlessness create constant disruption in what they had expected to be a haven for peaceful creativity.

Leah becomes a lightning rod for the other women’s frustrations, dominating their time and draining their energies. According to Jane, “She’s like some composite creature made up of all the people in my life — ex-husband, boyfriends, parents, colleagues, bosses, even my sons — who demand my attention, diverting me from my art.”

We view these events through the point of view of Lucinda, whose “domineering willfulness” seizes upon Leah as a target. She watches all the women grow inhibited by a myriad of potential consequences, both personal and professional, believing they must bridle “that unspeakable temptation not to be nice.” But for Lucinda, confrontation grows inevitable. “Why do we have to be nice?” she asks, venting her frustration. “Don’t you see how she uses this against us? She holds us hostage to this cult of niceness.”

López, who teaches in the creative writing M.F.A. program at Vanderbilt University, has a considerable gift for humor in her fiction, a skill she’s wielded to great effect in previous work, such as 2015’s picaresque novel, The Darling. In most of Postcards’ stories, her humor has plenty of space to roam, skewering bad oral presentations from students, tedious faculty committee meetings, and extracurricular campus events that spiral disastrously out of control.

At times this humor does tend to punch down, aimed toward those who may not be in a position to defend themselves, like beginner writers in a community workshop or psychologically vulnerable students. That said, her observations of campus ironies are sharp, as are her pokes at the verbal gymnastics women often perform in order not to upset the social peace — even when that peace is, in reality, making their lives a daily war. 

Postcards from the Gerund State will appeal most to those who enjoy stories of the hypocrisies, ironies, and institutional absurdities of academia. However, what López does best in this collection is to move beyond the veneer of intellectual and professional gamesmanship and expose the internal conflicts of her memorable central characters.

This Cult of Niceness

Emily Choate holds an M.F.A. from Sarah Lawrence College and is the fiction editor of Peauxdunque Review. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Mississippi Review, ShenandoahThe Florida ReviewTupelo QuarterlyBayou Magazine OnlineLate Night Library, and elsewhere. She lives near Nashville, where she’s working on a novel.