Book Review

In Corinne Manning’s We Had No Rules, Identity Is a Prism

The Seattle author's debut short story collection features queer characters struggling with definition.

By Stefan Milne May 14, 2020

When I started the fourth story in We Had No Rules, the debut short story collection by Seattle author Corinne Manning, I was a little frustrated. “I’m totally one of those boys,” the story begins, “who snaps pictures of himself with his boyfriend’s dog as if he were my dog, even though the chances of that happening are slim, since Brian won’t move in with me.” Nothing wrong with that sentence, but it was the third story in a row that kicked off with a couple in tension and a dog in the immediate scenery. (Compare the previous story’s opener: “The dog wasn’t mine anymore. It belonged to her...”) Each story was narrated in the first-person, in a similar voice. I feared a sort of narrative repetitive motion injury. That seemed odd because much of Manning’s writing hummed with clarity, intelligence, humor, wisdom, and warmth. 

Well, my worry was empty. Eventually—I’m slow, I’m sorry—I caught on. The repetitions are not failures of imagination but its form, a way to peel back layers of identity. All 11 stories in the collection are narrated in first-person, in a similar voice, by a queer character. That “I” shifts as you move through the book—similar but never the same. Many stories center on breakups, a few on divorces. Some bring back characters from earlier. 

In the title story, two sisters who’ve left a home where the big rules (like not being queer) were “vague or unspoken” live together in New York and try to come up with their own rules. That leads to the narrator (16) having an encounter with an older roommate. "Is this sex?" she asks as she touches the roommate with a glove on. In the penultimate story, “The Wallaby,” we check in later. By then the narrator has gotten some land outside of Seattle. On it, she seduces a younger farmhand. She’s lived long enough that life’s repetitions, like those of the book, take on a metaphysical flavor: 

The feeling settled over me—like it always does before I fuck someone I’m going to fall in love with—that I already knew the farmhand. And maybe because I’m older I did know a version of her, I’d dated her before, I’d confused and hurt her before. I enjoyed the feeling of eating in the kind of silence that comes from already loving someone for years.

Do such repetitions qualify as a self? For whom? What is the line between being hurt and doing the hurting? Throughout the book, characters struggle to define where they fit in the world, in their communities (particularly LGBTQ+ communities), even in the bookshelf. “Gay Tale” goes full meta: “Oh, fuck it,” the narrator begins. “I’m writing lesbian fiction.” That story makes certain strictures—of genre, of narrative, of the language sexual identity, of language itself—a little too clear, which flattens the story. (A few others also veer off to make a point.) No matter. Elsewhere Manning covers such ground deftly, and with wit. “I’d once been hailed as the Philip Roth of gay and lesbian fiction and my formula was tight…. A straight character got seduced, a mother came to understand, a dazzling John Updike finish.” 

Such definitions can box people in, sometimes rather literally. In “The Wallaby,” on that land with the farmhand, the narrator is setting up a small home in a flatbed shipping container. Later she starts thinking of “all these adult white queers in shipping containers, seeming much nicer when you get them still in the container than when you get them without the container.” It’s hard to not hear in that word—container—echoes of capitalism, of lives that come prepackaged. Also, echoes of Walt Whitman and his famous claim to a capacious identity: “Do I contradict myself? / Very well, then I contradict myself / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)” But that containment feels a little colonial, no? Manning’s narrator may put herself in a box. Many of the characters do, escaping one set of rules for another. But the book as a whole feels like an argument against containment. In We Had No Rules, the “I” expands—less prison than prism.

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