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Speed Dreaming by Nicole Haroutunian
Julia Fierro's Cutting Teeth was one of the most anticipated novels of 2014. Here she turns her eye toward Nicole Haroutunian's Speed Dreaming, a debut story collection that "captures the zeitgeist of today’s young women, who, despite their education and privilege and ambition, struggle to make a life for themselves in the gloomy economic climate."
A review of Speed Dreaming
by Julia Fierro
“She’d rather no one look at her than everyone,” thinks Margaret, the teenage protagonist of “Youse,” in Nicole Haroutunian’s debut story collection Speed Dreaming.
Hasn’t every young woman, like Margaret, yearned for invisibility at some point during her twenty- and early thirty-something years, that phase of life in which youth and sex transform her into a walking spectacle? Yet, as the stories in Speed Dreaming reveal with dazzling clarity, just as often, she wishes to be seen.
In the bright young women that occupy the collection’s overcast urban landscape, that visibility is accompanied by a burgeoning awareness of danger lurking around every corner—a catcalling older man, a home burning to the ground, a coyote running wild in the streets of Queens. This subtle sense of foreboding trembles under the seemingly quiet surface of Haroutunian’s stories until the ordinary (a cake, a lamp, the backseat of a cab) turns extraordinary, and the fleeting shift acts as a perfect filter for the characters’ frustration, elation, doubt and, above all, hope.
The pace of the collection moves swiftly from story to story, an effortless quality accomplished through Haroutunian’s confidently crafted tone and lean prose. The women, one after another, question the life they want, as well as the life they imagine they should want, weighing the potential consequences of early adulthood’s biggest decisions—love, marriage, work, and motherhood.
In “Youse,” as Margaret walks the roads alone, a self-imposed punishment, she hopes, at once, to be spotted by the menacing older man, but is also terrified by the possibility. Each of the young women in Speed Dreaming vacillates between these two opposing desires. To be seen and acknowledged—by their mother, their lover, their upstairs neighbor, or the relentless hustle of New York City. And, alternately, to be invisible, protected. They hide behind children’s paper mache masks, imagined love letters, and diagnoses of terminal illness. When the women do reveal themselves, it is often to strangers, a surprising security afforded by the anonymity of life in a city where change is constant.
In the hands of a lesser writer the characters’ ambivalence might have read as passive, the women as victims of a harsh deterministic world, but it is clear that Haroutunian respects and admires these complex and refreshingly believable young women whose searching is imbued with a quiet urgency that inspired the reader to admire them as well.
Speed Dreaming, and its cast of curious and quietly bold young women, captures the zeitgeist of today’s young women, who, despite their education and privilege and ambition, struggle to make a life for themselves in the gloomy economic climate. The collection’s characters watch homes burn to the ground, they witness violence from their bedroom windows, they flee to and from cities, and lose jobs they were too naïve to appreciate.
Yet, despite the gray skies, the stories are also filled with light, for these young women are studious thinkers and analytical explorers. In “The Last Unicorn,” a story narrated by Meg, a new mother and curator of a doomed maritime museum, Meg says this about the working class women of New York City in the 1800s, “These women were… super heroes.”
As Meg reinterprets the stories of her long dead counterparts, who, like her, came to New York City in search of work, love, and a new life, she reveres them while also wanting much more for her own life—a meaningful marriage, a safe home, a job that provides and satisfies, and a sense of self that is independent from family and motherhood. It is this complex duality of desire that makes each story in Speed Dreaming resonate. There is much to admire in these young women and their search for a vibrant and fulfilling life amidst the stark world they’ve inherited.
-- Julia Fierro